So, probably better to first clear something up. I’m not racing anymore and any social media posts, blogs or videos I put out are no longer based around me as an athlete. My lack of publicly acknowledging this situation probably reveals that I haven’t quite found peace with it yet so I’m doing that now. A medium length, and sometimes successful racing career has come to an end just as it looked like it was going to get going again. In short, I had to decide if I wanted to be an average elite athlete or a good elite coach. There were lots of factors that played in to this decision, family, energy and what I am now willing to sacrifice, but from a professional perspective I knew that I had a shot at becoming a good elite level coach and that racing myself was risking that shot. So decision made and on we go.
Since I’ve been working with Lina progress has been consistent but there were lots of occasions where the journey could have come to an end, failure has often looked as likely as success, but not between us and we both had enough belief to keep going. The last 2 and half years have been an emotional up and down and fortunately it’s not going to come to an end for at least another season, so let the roller-coaster roll on.
Challenge Almere is what we build each season towards. Every year we start building in the off season specifically for the characteristics of this race, and some of the scenarios that played out in Sat race we have been preparing for over 2 years. Although our athlete and coach journey isn’t ending here, for me there have been a lot of targets we have hit and these are projects that have come to an end. The performance that Lina delivered on Sat contained so many specifics that we have been working on for many months all coming together at once, and as these specifics came together we now have to put them to bed and work towards new ones for a Gold medal at the World Championships next year.
These are the main performance targets we needed to hit for Saturdays race:
-Swimming in the group and maximizing speed as well as minimizing energy consumption.
-Producing a hard and consistently paced Bike through changeable wind conditions, that must create an opportunity for the race to come back on the run. Too hard and the run might not be there, too soft and we will run out of road during the run.
-Running a high average pace, maintaining constant pressure, but specifically a fast last 5 to 7k as that’s where the opportunities will be.
When you look at those 3 targets for Swim, Bike and Run you get no idea of the amount of training sessions, planning and months and months of consistency that go in to it. But I will try to break down the performance a little bit starting with the Swim.
-To stay in the pack we needed to develop a higher Threshold (around 2k TT effort) but within this you also need to be able to confidently go over and under this effort, therefore training has to keep this in mind and bounce around either side of that threshold, as well as on it. You need to have a mix of intensities but always with the target effort as a reference point. Go over Threshold and returning to it within the same interval is very useful for this. More specifically for a race start you have to be able to swim 200-300m way over this effort, then drop down to this effort and then down to IM effort for the rest of the Swim. There is a very specific type of effort for the start of the Swim leading in to the main duration of the Swim, and if you don’t train for it specifically things will fall apart and you will Swim alone and potentially start the Bike in a worse physical and mental state.
-Then you need to be able to hold your IM pace whilst being able to surge if you loose feet, but also regain focus and relaxation when you find them again. This again means training at different cadences and different intensities either side of race pace, whilst always knowing where race pace is as a reference. But most importantly you need practical in race trial and error. This year’s Swim was 2 and a half years of trial and error that came right, not suddenly, but just when it was supposed to as part of a steady progression. It required an improved Threshold, improved race pace, improved open water skills and the ability to manage the specific intensities during the Swim start.
This may sound simple, but within your swim training there are very specific areas you have to work in again and again week after week. You then have to go through the emotion of trial and error in races whilst still being able to perform when the draft doesn’t come off, but the truth is that without the draft we could have been looking at another 3rd Place and not the silver medal or better we were aiming for.
The Bike was something we have been building up ever since we started, and for us the Bike represents one side of the sword with the run being the other, the Bike and Run combination is what does the damage. The Bike has to be something that Lina can control through different wind conditions, technical sections and other riders without letting the front of the race get too far away, and making sure that any competition that is riding close to or with Lina is being put under pressure or dropping back. We are looking to create pressure during the Bike and then to turn that pressure in to a magnet that sucks Lina towards the front as the run progresses. The magic of Linas Bike is that it can be competitive with the fastest Bike splits, but in going that fast there is no detraction from the run. I’m sure she could ride faster but all that matters is the finishing time with a Swim, Bike, Run combination.
-Being able to Ride in this way isn’t too dissimilar to what’s needed in the swim. You first have to make sure that the training is creating a higher race pace mainly through work above, at and below Threshold, but within that you have to be able to vary your cadence for long periods to deal with the wind without stressing your Cardiovascular system (during high cadence) or Muscular system (when slightly over geared). This has to be built simultaneously in to the program, so your improvements and progression in race pace is matched by an ability to perform race pace at different cadences, whilst locked in to the TT position constantly and dealing with technical sections. An example session would be: In the TT position 4×20 mins between 70.3 and Threshold effort, with 10 min @ 70rpm and 10 min @ 90rpm. This can be with a 5 or 10 min rest interval.This again is a very specific type of riding, and if you don’t train for the specifics of how you’re going to race you’re just creating holes within your performance that you’re dropping energy in to.
Back to the race, and so far things were looking pretty good. A first successful draft on the Swim which saved time and energy, and this had been followed up with a Bike that was fast and had put Lina in 4th place and within striking distance of 1st and 2nd. But the gaps were big. 24 mins to Sarissa, and around 14 to Yvonne. This was an interesting situation. The Bronze medal was basically safe and the silver was slowly come back towards us however not quickly enough, but Yvonne was putting pressure on Sarissa and as planned this was going to create an opening for us. Things were calm during lap 4 of 6, and then things started to heat up on lap 5. Yvonne was in the lead and given the situation I couldn’t see any way she was going to crack. Sarissa was starting to fade but still looking tough and still with a big lead, Lina was running consistently and slowly taking time back. The gap to Sarissa had reduced to about 16 mins and 15 to Yvonne with around 10k to go. My message to Lina was to stay relaxed and in control (which she was anyway) and then I had the long wait until the next lap.
Staying calm in between 6 laps is extremely hard. Its like watching a sports team or individual you support whilst being emotionally invested in a way that’s similar to an exam or test you’ve been studying 12 months for, but you’re not taking the test and you can only watch the exam being marked. Passing the test confirms or denys the belief you had in yourself which creates a significant pressure. It’s hard to stay calm and in control of your thoughts. There are also business repercussions but when things go well or badly, my first thought is always to what I personally could have done differently to change the situation. This weighs heavily and its something I need to change if I’m going to have any longevity in the sport.
By the time lap 5 came around I was drifting in and out of feeling happy with a Bronze and disappointed we didn’t have a silver, but one thing I’ve learnt over the last few years is that you have to try and maintain a neutral mindset. You have a very brief window to interact with your athlete. They might need you and they might not, but either way one thing you cannot do is project how you are feeling on to them without knowing specifically how they are feeling and what the situation is, so I stayed as neutral as I could when the gap came down to about 14 mins. As myself and Lina interacted we were both keeping it as calm and relaxed as you can do in these situations, but that was all about to change and I was about to receive a coaching lesson I had only really learnt from TV coverage to this point. That is the something that makes these races so special in that big things can happen very suddenly, and for this reason you should never settle too early for what you have. Sarissa came past and she was really struggling, she had put in a very fast Swim and a Bike course record but her fighting spirit was now what she needed just to survive.
The gap had come down to 8 mins with one lap to go and as Lina came around the message was delivered loud and clear. “Sarissa is walking. You can catch her. But you’re going to have to go deep, deeper than you’ve ever gone before”. In the previous lap as Lina had closed the gap to Sarissa, I had got a burst of paranoia and popped in to the nearest Bike shop to buy a gel that contained Salt, and Caffeine as well as the necessary Carbs. This gel was delivered with the message and a hard pat on the back, and then a return to the thoughts and realization that as a coach there is only so much you can do in the moment. The previous months and years decide the outcome.
The next 30 mins was pretty excruciating. After my last meeting with Lina I went straight to the bar to pick up 2 beers (not something I would normally do mid race) and then made my way to the finish line and stadium. The time was going so slowly that things were a bit surreal. Possibly the situation mixed with some dehydration followed by very fast rehydration with beer, but either way it was very nerve racking. Yvonne came in getting the finish to a career that any athlete who has achieved what she has achieved deserves. Under 9hrs again, with a winning record of 1 in 3 for all her Long Distance races, former World record holder and fierce competitor who competes with respect and understanding. As she crossed the line and threw her shoes in to the crowd I couldn’t help but feel lucky they didn’t come my way as I know what kind of multi fluid shower running shoes get in an IM. She really is one of the greatest to ever do it and to be a part of this moment was very special.
The time ticked away and I considered getting another beer, but by now my concept of time was so screwed up that I wasn’t sure if I would miss Lina crossing the Line or not. The last Camera Bikes had come in with Yvonne so it was an old school sit in the stadium and wait.
And wait. And wait, until finally Lina came around the corner and I let out the kind of scream/shout reserved only for England, but this one was for Germany and was better than the handful of successes England have exposed me to. This was a very big relief as well as a joy. Months of training and strategy had come off and each small piece of the puzzle contributed. 6th and 5th before we started together and now 4th,3rd and 2nd. Progression like that doesn’t lie and the relief of having your beliefs confirmed, both in Lina and myself, is something that won’t go away for as long as I do this. We both confirmed where we belong. Sarissa crossed the line and it was an emotional time for her and everyone who witnessed her efforts. It was an extremely brave and talented effort that very nearly won the race. As she sat down and felt the emotion of it all, I told her a few times that she will win this race (but hopefully not next year). She is a very talented athlete across all distances and over the following years of her career she has the potential to be one of the best in the sport.
This is of course Linas story. I’m aware of my contribution, but witnessing her hard work, perseverance and talent has been an education for me. To have someone believe your advice and commit fully to it is very fulfilling but it also comes with a lot of pressure, and this has been a year of learning how to deal with that pressure and responsibility. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that you have to trust your athlete and that trying to explain and teach the process you’re going through is very important. I did this subconsciously but I now understand how important this is all the time. There will be times when the only way you can maximize the training program is to make fast and sometimes spontaneous decisions, and even though you can help make some of these as a coach the athlete can make them faster and more instantaneously.
Linas success in Almere this year is in a large part down to her ability to make the right decisions in training at the right time, because she works outside of Triathlon training time is limited and this has been extremely important. The realization for me that I have Linas trust, and that she has learnt and understood my training philosophy is a very important turning point. It means that my role becomes more of a Coach/Consultant type role. There are always going to be situations where an outside perspective is important, and to keep progressing each year takes new ideas and increased motivation so my role remains important. But it is a working relationship that has taken a new shape this year and my personal challenge will be to learn how to adapt and still provide the best help that I can.
Challenge Almere is a very special race. It’s the oldest in Europe and one of the most special. It has real heart and soul and the finish line from 1st Elite to last Age group athlete is very powerful. For us it’s the race that keeps on giving. Linas first race in Almere was a DNF so I’m hoping that is the bad luck in Almere out of the way, because we’ve shown we know how to move up the leader board and with next year being the World Champs over the full Distance it’s a fantastic opportunity. Nothing is guaranteed and it will take luck as well as hard work to get a victory, but to have got to a position where Lina starts as a favorite confirms her previous success, talent, hard work and belief in me. I believe she can win, I know she believes she can win, and with another year of training in the bank we will be very hard to beat.