As my wife regularly tells me, I don’t race enough. So rather than challenge her theory gradually I decided to stack 4 weeks of June and July with 4 races. The first was Shepperton open water 3k, the second was Eatonman middle distance, the third was the Boskman middle/Long distance and the 4th was Long Course Weekend.
Shepperton open water 3k.
The truth is that I find swimming difficult! My approach to cycling and running doesn’t transfer to swimming, and learning to get it right requires turning off all my natural instincts and (for this season) learning new ones. Nearly all my off season swimming has been technique and drills, with April onwards incorporating some fitness and race specific work. This meant come race day I felt ready for 3k of open water drills! I had spent some time in open water 3 days before, but out of the two wetsuit sizes Zone 3 had sent me I opted for the smaller one for this session, and I’m not gonna lie, I felt like a Pepperami stuck half way while making its way out of the sheath. By the end of the 4K training session my shoulders were in pieces and the speed wasn’t great either, all of which put me in a questionable mindset.
When it comes to swimming my confidence can come and go quickly, especially as my improvements in the pool don’t always match what happens in open water, but I have created more of a baseline understanding of my swim this year. I know how my stroke should feel, I know what starts to fall apart and when it will, I know my pacing and open water (Lake) technique is solid and most importantly all of this is for less effort and HR due to a more efficient technique and more realistic goals. But, in the past and without doubt there always seems to be a significant difficult patch I have in all swims that outweighs what I go through in Bike and Run. A mixture of fear and a loss of focus that can drag on and really impact my time and overall mindset.
After starting the race well and with confidence, this patch came hard at about 2k. My shoulders were still very painful from from my Pepperami experience and the burn was really kicking in. For about 300m I tried really hard to convince myself to get out the water, and during this time I probably slowed a bit as the dark place I went to was pretty dark. ‘You’re never gonna work this swimming thing out, so what’s the point in being here, how can you be an Elite Triathlete when you can’t swim etc’. But then I reasoned with myself. I knew this Wetsuit fit well, that it was a very good suit and I also knew that I was swimming well, and most importantly I knew all I could do was hold my own pace with a technique and relaxation that was as efficient as it could be, and at the end of the day when it comes to pacing that is all that matters! It was in fact such a dark place I went to that getting through it was a bit of a Eureka moment, and it feels now like I have a very different mindset and feel about swimming. I almost enjoy it! When I got out the water my shoulders were in pieces due to my Pepperami training swim and the race itself, but I knew I had got through something important, and what I had found wasn’t confidence but an understanding that makes all future ups and downs less extreme and more manageable.
3rd Place 46mins.
Eatonman middle distance.
Gonna sum this one up quickly. Felt fresh and happy before and during the race, first out the water and on to the bike, 5 min lead after 50k and on course for a 2.20 bike split, double puncture, flapjack, another flapjack, drove home, mild depression.
Boskman middle/long distance.
Unlike the previous race at Eaton 2 weeks earlier, for this race I certainly wasn’t fresh. I had 3 weeks of hard work in my legs and not just 1, including a marathon 5 days earlier with efforts that totalled 1hr over race pace. I had also biked hard on the Friday before the race with some long,,overgeared efforts on the TT bike and turbo. Physical tiredness is manageable, but what I hadn’t planned for was 3 nights of very little, broken sleep due to Prince loud mouth in the other room. On top of that I chose to experiment with 4 hours of driving to a from registration the day before, followed by 2 hours sleep and then a 2hr drive to the race start the following morning that kicked off at 5.30
As I packed my bike In to the car I was aware that not only were people still out for many there was plenty more still to be drunk. I set off and realised two things straight away, firstly that my lower back was fucked from the previous day’s driving, and secondly that I was as close to being asleep as you can be whilst being awake. As I weaved across the motorway trying not to die and wondering why I had chosen this self harming approach to racing, I tried desperately to motivate myself and get myself up for it. It wasn’t working. I was nervous enough to make life harder for two service station toilet attendants, but not the real nerves and adrenaline that come when you’re ready for battle. This carried on right up up until the race start, when I found myself so dozy that I was completing a warm up swim going the wrong way away from the start when the hooter went off. I quickly tried to catch the leader and was on course to reach his feet when someone cut me off. Due to basically being asleep during the race briefing, and the fact we appeared to be swimming down the Amazon, I had no idea if I was swimming towards the finish or out to sea so I trusted the feet I was on and decided to refine my drafting skills. As someone learning the dark arts of swimming it’s only recently I’ve truly appreciated the huge benefit to be had from drafting. I briefly felt ashamed that it felt so easy, but then quickly realised I had no idea where or who I was so just kept at it.
This all sounds like I was very conscious and talkative during the swim, but I was, and the overriding theme of this race is that it didn’t stop. I never found a rhythm at any point and I was unable to switch my head off for more than a minute or two. I was talking in my head debating and planning and thinking throughout, and unlike physical tiredness which you can push through, this mental tiredness which was causing me to chatter non-stop was much harder to push through. I came out of the water in 2nd and transitioned well. I then found a good rhythm on the bike which for me is a big gear around 70-75rpm and 310-320 watts, but even though the rhythm was good the feeling was not. Almost an instant lactic build up and what felt like riding on damaged legs. They were damaged of course after 3 heavy weeks of training, and this tied in to a heavy mind made it very miserable. After 10 mins on the bike I had rode up to 1st but I felt so tired and was having to spin a much smaller gear at around 85-90rpm to get any kind of discomfit free momentum. I was so tired in that I wanted to fall asleep in the aero position and I actually tested my head on my forearms once or twice, but because I had reached the lead I was motivated enough to stick at it. The chap who I overtook wasn’t going away, and I knew nothing about him other than that he was riding well and he was keeping an honest distance. By this point I was having a 4 way conversation in my head that bounced from-I want to sleep, to my back is fucked, to you’re in the lead this is great, to shit I have to drive home afterwards. It was very bizarre and quite uncomfortable to be in the lead of a race and so demotivated, but that’s what was going on so I got on with it. The lower back pain that kicked in around 80k was very sharp! I always have sharp lower back pain on the bike due to previous injuries, and especially if I’m not tapered and a bit tight, but this was like someone was pissing in some fresh road rash, not nice at all and tied in with everything else the whole experience was very gruelling.
I was in the lead though, and that together with how beautiful the New Forest was looking made me see the positives and as we took turns on the front the end of the bike came around soon enough. We transitioned smoothly enough and even though I had been giving myself a pep talk for what seemed like 4 hours, I was still shocked at how quickly my competitor ran off the bike. Pep talking is no substitute for focusing it seems. I had a lead after the 500m due to a Superman in a phone box transition, but I could here the hoofs getting closer behind me and after 1k I was trying to hang on to his race belt like a baby reaching for a boob. I was way outside of a pace I could manage psychologically, and normally in the situation I can find some strength or competitiveness to hang on which can lead to a fight back when I get stronger later in the race. But because of the mental fatigue I just couldn’t dig in, and because of the non stop self talk that had been going on since the start this was becoming a live discussion in my head during this very close race. Very bizarre and incredibly frustrating given that I had been in a head to head for the win over the last 4 and a half hours, and this should have been an exciting and stimulating time.
I buckled after about 3k and had to let him go. He was pulling ahead of me on downhills and he was handling the rough trails much better, and I was using the up hills to pull him back which was grinding me down. I calmed myself and settled in to a rhythm I could hold which was something around IM pace. With that finally I got some peace in my head, and the constant chatter had some longer breaks in it which meant I could find some energy. For the next 1k I watched him drift off to about 400m ahead. We were now running on roads and I was starting to feel like I had some control which to my surprise meant the gap was coming down, down to about 200m. Then we hit the trails again and the gap went back up to 300m, then after the trails and back on to the roads I closed it to 100m. Although I was calm and controlled now, I was also very aware I just didn’t have another gear in me. He was so close but I just couldn’t switch off enough to hurt myself that little bit more, and what was worse I was conscience of this so the conversation in my mind was kicking off again. Why can’t you push through, what’s wrong with you, but I am pushing!!, no you’re not you disgrace, shit I’ve got to drive home in 30 mins. After a long steep climb I came round a blind corner with 4K to go and to my surprise he was about 10m in front of me. I was hurting in so many ways, but in non of the right ways, and I just couldn’t dig deeper or fight in a way I normally would to link up with him. Over the next 3k the gap would grow to 30m, then drop back to 10m, but I never had the feeling I was going to win and in the end I got what I deserved and came second by 15 seconds. Will who won the race, is a former Domestic and European Age Group Champion over Olympic and Middle distance and a very very strong athlete. In the UK there are so many strong athletes that to win races or finish well you cannot be too deeply fatigued. Some Pro Athletes can rock up and do that, but I’m not at that level and for me to be fresh I need a long taper. At least 2 weeks of very light work with quality sessions keeping my weakest leg (swimming) sharp. These experiences are harsh but necessary, and although this was more gruelling and less enjoyable than I’d like I did gain a lot from it. But never again will I do that much driving to and from a race.
After this race I was absolutely shattered. It is a tough distance to race from start to finish and the fact we were side by side for over 5 hours made it even more tricky, but because I was so mentally and physically tired going in to the start, after I had finished the 2hr drive home I was completely gone. Sadly I didn’t have much of a positive vibe post race and although I can look back fondly on how I dug in, the whole experience still feels more like a punishment than a positive experience. Having to constantly be aware of every second and discomfort for nearly 6hrs, whilst questioning why you can’t get motivated enough to fight for the win leaves you feeling very drained. The mixture of enjoyment and the challenge is an important balance to get right. This sport takes so much from you and it can take too much if you let it, but it can also give you much more than you bargained for and the positive influence can last a lifetime. Having just had a child I’m having to learn that balance all over again. Mistakes that I’m correcting from last years experiences don’t necessarily apply anymore, or if they do they have a new form. Last year I wasn’t able to race as much as I wanted and I also trained with more volume and less specificity, this year recovery has been sporadic and because of racing more and training with a bit more intensity this balance has meant very deep and random fatigue.
The most deep and confusing shift, and one that I’m still trying to confront, is that having a son means that nothing else matters in comparison. This doesn’t mean I don’t still have a burning desire to succeed, but it does mean that when things don’t go right in racing or if fatigue builds up too much the negative feelings I have are much stronger because of the time and energy I’ve sacrificed. Going in to my two main races of the year LCW and The Outlaw, it’s worth trying to highlight my mindset, and this year my ups and downs have looked like this.
*Meander marathon-Undertrained but fulfilling experience.
*IM Lanzarote-Noro Virus, DNS, Gutted.
*Shepperton Open Water 3k-Challenging and fulfilling.
*Etonman middle-1st on the bike, felt great, Double puncture, DNF, gutted.
*Boskman-Extremely fatigued, very draining, 2nd, wiped out.
In trying to simplify how this year has gone I think it’s possible to get an idea of how scrambled my mind is. Lots of experiences but as many positives as negatives, and no clear indicators of my form outside of training. The numbers in training are very good, my baseline sessions that tell me where I am are:
*8×5 mins zone 5 watts with 5 easy between-currently Avg 353 watts.
*3hr run with 10 mins above IM pace every 20 mins.
*3x750m on 11.15 Open water,Wetsuit, with 750m easy between each rep.
And when I turn my ego and anxieties off I can see what is possible, but the reality since the Boskman is that LCW and the Outlaw are 2 steps in to the Unknown.