Borris Viaduct

Borris Viaduct
Borris ViaDuct

Saturday, 2 July 2016

I Sore Man

Isoman Swim Course on the eve of the event
 6.55am, and my mind was only just starting to make this real. Better late than never I suppose. Threading water with 60 fellow nutjobs in a lake in Redditch, sighting my first target buoy, 5 minutes from the start gun. I was just starting to feel the prospect  of this crazy event hit home. 7mile swim, 8 laps of the lake, then a 60 mile bike and a marathon. In fact there was more than 60 crazies - way more. A lot of people were doing just the swim, or just the swim and bike and were starting with us. Lucky bastards!

Having the Ironman under my belt was of no use to me here. This was a mystery. I had no idea how this distance of swim would effect me. How it would effect me on the bike. What effort level was required on the bike. Zone 2 on ironman bike, Zone 3 on half ironman bike - what to you do on a half ironman bike that leads into an ironman run? No clue. Illness, injury and possibly too many events in the lead up had meant I had not really got into regular long distance running training this year, and I had not seen the benefits in my run walk strategy in training that I had been hoping for. I was not confident about that at all.

The strategy was simple. I was not going to simply participate and finish. I wanted to give it a go.I felt based on the splits from the event last year, that I could come out in the top 5 to10 or so in the swim, and I felt good on the bike after some focused training this year. So I decided that whatever it was, I was going to try and hold my swim position on the bike, and whatever will be will be on the run. I didn't know how the strong runners and cyclists would fare in the event overall, so I thought I had a chance of a top 5. It was, by comparison to the Ironman and the Long Course Weekend, a pretty 'flat' run course, so I had to think I could manage it!

1 minute to the start now, and I wasn't quite psyched up yet. I almost felt I didn't need to be. I had read 1 or two blog posts about this event from last year , and had got the impression that due to the massive distance of the swim , it actually resulted in a pretty relaxed start, and people would find their own space rather quickly.

10 seconds to go. The low keyness of the whole thing was disconcerting. Were we really about to.... [gun goes off]? .... feck it, yes we were!!

Iso was misinformed about the swim start.

My god, it was an all out brawl. It must have been the most aggressive swim start I had ever been in! I thought it would just settle after about 20 meters, but it soon became clear this was an all out race to the 1st buoy. I was used to the odd punch and kick, but this was unrelenting. Got properly smacked in the head quite a few times, had hands grab my feet, had swimming arms land on and roughly scrape down my back. Constantly. Even had the sensation of someone just swimming over  me for the first time ever. Unpleasant. My plan had be to swim this at a sustainable long and strong, technically deliberate swimdown pace, but I had to give something to try and find my space, which was not forthcoming. It also felt like dozens of people were passing me. Did they not know what distance this was?!

I was battered and bruised by the 1st buoy, and things did not improve to the 2nd buoy. Smack-Punch-Kick-Scrape. 3rd buoy no different either. It wasn't until the long stretch to the 4th buoy that I found some kind of space. And now half way into the 1st lap, I felt something I did not want to feel - fatigue. I did not feel good. I could not relax into my stroke. My shoulders felt tired. I couldn't decide whether it was the punishing start or had I simply been battered that much, but this was not promising. In fact, it was quite demoralising. I persisted, and tried to find my rhythm as I fell into line around the 4th 5th and 6th buoys. The 7th buoy was the last one before going through the timing gate, but the journey to it was right into the low morning sun. It was impossible to see, it was blinding. It took a lot of sighting, and I knew my back would feel this later. There was a pontoon at the lap timing gate where you could leave your own bottle and gels for the swim. I figured I would fuel at the end of laps 2, 4 and 6 so just swam straight through on this one.

Finally getting some space for myself
I'm not going to lie, lap 2, I just felt down! Couldn't find rhythm, arms felt wrecked, felt well off the pace, over 85% left of the swim, all I did was get around the course, looking forward to energy gel at the end of the lap!

Lap 3 and energy gel did NOT sit well. Jaysus!! Really did not feel comfortable at all. I did manage to latch onto some kind of pace buddy though who dragged me around the next few buoys... Then halfway around the lap, something happened. I let out a big burp! It was a good one too, I saw one of the support marshalls steady himself in his kayak. I was alright again! My arms felt good! My rhythm was good. I stayed with pace buddy till the end of the lap then pulled away, trying to catch the next guy. Am pretty sure I lapped my first person about here too... God bless her, she was in for a long morning! I spent the whole lap 4 trying to catch the next guy but he wasn't having any of it! By the end of the lap I realised Pacey McPace Face was back on my feet again. Maybe it was better to draft with him for a bit. At the end of lap 4 I decided against a gel, just went for a sip of energy drink. Then things got really really blurred...

Sighting into the sun. Lovely
First of all I'm sure I sang 'Isoman' in my mind to the theme tune of the A team for pretty much a whole lap. Also somewhere in the next few laps (possible the A Team lap) I latched onto someone who passed me swimming quite aggressively, and held onto him for a whole lap, passing a ton of people on the way. He slowly pulled away from me at the end of that lap and then I made a stark realisation.... what flippin lap was I on?! Did I have an energy gel a the end of lap 5 and just pass through the gate after lap 6? Had I passed through and this was lap 6? Was this lap 7?! Shit... Had I forgotten I had taken my 3rd gel?! Aah!!... Of course I could've just checked my gps watch and the distance would've told me, but I didn't want to be demoralised by  what I saw. I decided I would I would finish the next lap and check, while having my energy gel. One thing I was certain of was I was not on my last lap yet, so I could be on two laps left at worst  when I checked with a fresh energy gel in the tank.

This lap was terribly uncertain and my body was starting to creak. My neck was becoming raw from the wetsuit rub and i could feel it burning. My back was terribly strained from all the sighting. There must have been a slight imbalance in my stroke too, like my left arm stretching too far forward, because I could feel a compensating strain in my right shin. I tried to rotate my feet and loosen it, but easier said than done when you are trying to swim! I was still passing people  though, which kept the spirits up. It was quite hard to tell if I was lapping people or passing people who started too hard, they seemed like reasonably decent swimmers I was passing!

More Sighting. Back was going to feel this later!!
I came to end of the lap, which was at least number 6, decided to have my last energy gel. Then I decided to check my watch a lap early – 9.6km. One lap left!! YES!! Just as I made this realisation, I heard a gun go off and saw a bunch of white hatted swimmers starting at the next buoy, 30m away – the half distance guys had just started. I knew they were starting at 9:30am, which meant one thing – I had a 30 minutes to break the 3 hour mark. Game on!

I swam quickly out to the first buoy, where a mass of white hats were passing. I skimmed along the outside of the group, away from the chaos, but very much feeling the draft benefit of this mass of swimmers. All of a sudden my arms felt great, like a surge of adrenaline had materialised to get me through this last lap. I passed white hat after white hat, dozens of them. I couldn’t believe after 7 laps I was passing all these fresh swimmers – the whole lap was basically an epic overtaking manouvre!

I got through the timing gate for the last time, now feeling like a rockstar. This was very shortlived as I climbed out of the slip and realising  had zero blood in my legs, zero blood in my head and crucially zero coordination! I stumbled sideways off the slip almost into the boat shed, edgy, turning my head to all sights and sounds, disorientated and on edge. Eventually I managed to kurb my stumbling into some kind of forward motion, which may or may not have been percieved by the spectators as running, towards transition!

People were clapping. I must be doing okay, I thought.  Top 10 maybe? The stewards at transition clapped me in. Then one of the stewards shouted out something that I couldn’t believe. “First swimmer in!”


I took my time in transition, knowing we had 7 minutes grace from swim to bike transition that was not included in the o\a time, trying to get my wits about me, trying to digest what I just heard. Was I really race leader? As if to confirm this, I saw a guy in transition, fully kitted in cycle gear, probably waiting for a relay team mate, who gave me a very corny nod and thumbs up. It was like I had left reality at the start line and exited the water into some cheesy american daytime movie. It was surreal.

Wandering out into unchartered territory of  'race leader'
I bumbled my way out of transition with my bike like a race leader really shouldn’t and headed out on the bike. 2 or 3 miles on the duel carriage way and then out into winding country lanes. I struggled to get my heart rate down – the excitement had definitely gotten to me. I was aiming for mid zone 3 – I was currently high zone 4! Once I got off the dual carriageway, things calmed down a bit. I’d read on a few blog posts about the event from last year that a people got lost on the bike course, so I had the course mapped out on the garmin, which was prompting me in advance for all my turns. By all accounts, all directional event signs seemed to be clearly in place, but this gps nevertheless proved quite useful, on a bendy twisty course I hadn’t reccied, and without any cyclists to follow – oh yeah, did I mention I was race leader? Nuts. It didn’t feel like I was in a race, or an event, just going for a tempo cycle in the countryside in absolute bewilderment.

Iso lonely.

I was well into 1/3 of the distance, and still no sign of anyone. The roads were quite draggy and lumpy (without ever being as unrelenting as IMW, but still a pain) and it seemed there was wind from all directions excpet behind me. What’s more, I couldn’t fully get into a comfortable position on the bike. My postural muscles in my back were completely shot from all the sighting in the swim, so my shoulders were left with all the support work. They were no good either though after all the swimming, so I was just slumped on the bike, with all my weight on my elbows and forearms on the aerobars – everything ached. I could only stay in the aero position (which I really needed in this crumby wind) for a couple of minutes at a time, but I didn’t feel comfortable on the handlebars either. Some sidewinds made for some interesting moments on some downhills too, sending me into one or two major wobbles while going at speed – this made it quite hard for me to commit to getting back the speed I lost on some of the uphills, which was quite frustrating.

Iso not feeling the bike right now.

Just after halfway, and the guys at the feedstation confirmed I was the first to arrive there. This was the one thing that kept me in pretty good spirits. I still couldn’t believe it, but knew it would only be a matter of time before someone caught me. This impending eventuality didn’t have me rush at the feedstation though – I took my time, and made sure I got what I needed.  It wasn’t long after before someone finally passed me. I tried to keep him in sight as long as possible. He had triple digits on his racenumber though which meant he was most likely a member of a relay team. I was still expecting a flood of bikes to pass me though, but it never happened. I was ¾ of the way around the course before I started passing the stragglers of the half distance course, and only then did I lose the lead, about 20km from the end. I don’t know was it there something psychological about finally getting passed, or was it simply down to timing, but it was around now I realised I had completely overcooked it on the bike. The pedal stroke was not smooth or quick, my form on the bike was terrible. I just wanted to be done with this now, but the last 20km were defnitely the longest!

One thing that made this stretch a bit more miserable was the Redditch motorists. They did NOT take any prisoners. Pretty much 95% of them didn’t slow down before passing, regardless of uncoming traffic & overtook in a position that suggested they didn’t even acknowledge you were on the road. I had quite a few close calls! It was pretty disgraceful to be honest.

Iso miss Pembrokeshire.

Back in from bike, backed wrecked, knee kicking out, a little worse for wear. 
After what seemed like an age, I finally got back to to transition, in 2nd place. Getting off the bike, my legs were not nearly as tight as they were after the bike in IMW, but I knew they were properly cooked. The marathon was not going to be fun! I was surprised to see the new race leader, Michal, in transition, across from me. I think he was Polish, and we had a very friendly conversation about the swim and the bike as we took advantage of the 5 minutes grace allowed for bike to run transition. He said running was his weakest, but I didn’t believe him – he looked like a proper athlete and I’m sure he was being modest. I was actually ready before him, and didn’t see the point of hanging around for the sake of it, so I ended up leaving transition in 1st again. I knew this would be shortlived!

My plan was to walk for a  minute after each of the feedstations, to keep the legs flushed out and in relatively good condition. I was hoping a very light and quick stride would get me through otherwise. Sure enough, Michal passed on on my first interval – it took some discipline to walk out the minute, but figured I had to stick to my plan. I kept him in sight for a few km and I felt my pace was good. In fact, my legs actually felt alright and I starting thing about the possibilies…. If I could hold a 4 hr 30 minute marathon, I might be able to hold on for a podium place! If felt like a realistic prospect….

…. at the time.

The course was 4 laps of a park circuit. I broke the lap in turn into 4 parts –
Part 1. the intial stretch from the transition zone along the west side of the lake we had swam around earlier in the morning that lead to an underpass.
Part 2.  A loop out into a meadowy part of the park which went out from and back to the underpass (which had a feedstation that you passed on the way out and way back)
Part 3. Another eastward loop that seemed to skim the edge of some residential estates before coming back into the park again
Part 4. The final stretch in ‘familiar territory’ along the rest of the lake and back to transition area or finish line.

Part 1 felt good. I had Michal in sight, and was holding a pace I had tried to train for. The feedstation in the underpass was hilarious. They had a hifi on full blast playing motivational rocky-esque music with a little girl, who couldn’t have been older than 8, on a microphone welcoming everyone and listing off everything the feedstation had to offer in a cheesy infomercial style – it was brilliant, and you couldn’t pass through this feedstation and leave without a smile on your face.

Optimistic start to the run!
A short distance into Part 2 and I did not feel good at all. My stomach felt bloated and unsettled and I really REALLY had to go to the loo. I asked any Marshalls I could find where there was one, and they weren’t sure, which was a sure sign there wasn’t anything official nearby! The run course was pretty quite at this point, and was tempted just to jump into the bushes, but proper facilities were going to be needed on this one. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and at the next opportunity I waddled off the course into a nearby pub to use their facilities. 5 minutes later and I was up and ‘running’ again. Finally I could get into some running!

Part 3 went on and on! Samey laneways with residences back onto it on the left, every corner felt the same, and there was no sense of progress. Part 4 felt familiar, as I ran past the athletes parking area and then ran the remainder of the lake (which was much longer than I thought it would be). One lap done, 3 to go.

I expected the 2nd lap to go better as I felt better. It didn't. I could see my km splits slowly slipping. I passed Vicki, my sports therapist and one of the Pembrokeshire locals who was doing the half distance, on part 3 of the lap. It was nice to have some conversation. Because of how few competitors there was, the run course was a lonely place - there were spells of 10-15minutes when i could see no-one ahead of me and no-one behind me. So it was nice not only to meet someone, but someone I knew! Shortly after I pulled away from her, in part 4 of the course, I could feel my legs start to seize up. I was in trouble now! In previous experience, my legs generally died a death about 3/4 of the way through a marathon and I would just have to grit my teeth for the last lap, but today they were dying a lap early! The bike effort had finally caught up with me. 'The run will be what it'll be' attitude was easy to make earlier in the day, but the foolishness of it was becoming clear now! 2 laps done. 2 to go.

Iso not sure about this.

I persevered on lap 3. My 'running' was gradually getting slower. My walking breaks at feed stations were getting longer. My attempts to start back to running were getting more painful. I met Karen, another Pembrokeshire local doing the half distance, about halfway around lap 3. I asked her about her partner John, who was doing the full but I had not seen him yet. Just after I had left her, I could hear John calling from behind. I didn't stop to let him catch me, as I knew I would be walking at a feed station soon (and I knew how painful it was becoming to start running again!). When he caught me at the feedstation he walked we me and we agreed to pace with each other. He was on lap 2 of the run and had a bit more energy in him. It was really good to have the company as my mind was in a dark place now!

He kept with me right to the end of the lap, and despite me telling him not to let me hold him up (I clearly was), he stayed with me. The company and conversation was good and was getting us both around. I had a massive ball of tension between my shoulder blades and neck, and John, being an osteopath stopped and helped to release some of it. He even stopped with me at the start of lap 4 as I HAD to stop and stretch my hamstrings - I couldn't even straighten them. However, after we passed the underpass feedstation, John started running again about 15 seconds before me and that was it. I was never going to catch him! I kept him in sight for as long as I could, but eventually I had to walk again.

"Walking for me, please"
My legs were getting so tight now I had to stretch them out. I had a few more intermittent spells of running. But the need to walk was taking over now. I actually felt completely fine walking and the pace was not an awful lot slower than what my running pace had become so after I passed my loo-stop pub, I stubbornly walked for at least a km, maybe 2! I didn't even think of how long it would take to do the remaining 7km or so walking, the thought of running was just too much to bear. I had a few more little spells of running. The few supporters that there were scattered around the course were pretty enthusiastic and kept me going. I must have walked nearly all of part 3 of the lap! As I started the final stretch, past the athletes car park, I made another attempt at starting to run. I felt a big twinge, like someone plucking a guitar string in my calf muscle. Nope, no running for me!

As I rounded the corner onto the lake, I made another go of it. No way was I going to be walking over the finish line! I tried a much smaller quicker stride - like really tiny steps, and it seemed to work for me, and I was starting to keep pace with people who had just passed me. It was incredibly painful, but I was able to keep going. I made it all the way around the lake and kept going. I took the left for the finish line and did, to minimum fanfare.

I Sore Man.

Not so equal for me, but mission accomplished all the same!

Someone gave me a deck chair and I just sat there for about 10 minutes, shellshocked. My god that run was absolutely horrendous, I was so glad it was over, and so happy to not be moving. By the time we were called up to get our medals, my body had completely seized up, and I had to climb the stairs up to the stage like a decrepit pirate.

I waited around for John to finish, it was the least I could do after him keeping me company for nearly a lap - it was great to able to share the achievement with someone!

In the weeks that followed, there was a sick feeling in my stomach. I had uploaded my activities to strava and the GPS was ALL OVER THE PLACE. This had been my fall back on the swim when I had lost count of laps and was a concern. Furthermore,  when I saw the raw results, not only was I the 2nd fast swimmer in the Full Isoman (I must have passed the lead guy before the transition area), but the 2nd fastest including the guys who did the swim only. This did not make sense. Dozens of people went ahead of me in the 1st lap, and despite finding some rhythm there is no way I caught them all. The only way alarm bells were not ringing during the race, was I assumed that all the guys who kicked my ass in the swim were only doing the swim.

When the final results came out, complete with lap splits, nearly 2 weeks after the event, my concerns were confirmed. As it was a floating timing gate, it missed the odd lap for some people, but counted it as a double lap the next time. However, my times did not add up. I had only done 7 of the 8 laps in the swim!! My GPS watch had gone haywire in the last few laps and by sheer coincidence it gave me a distance after lap 6 representative of doing exactly 7 laps. It was a real kick in the stomach and I was genuinely pretty down about it. However after telling the organisers, so they could adjust my result accordingly (they hadn't spotted the anomaly) , and posting my embarrassing error on facebook I felt better. Afterall, I had still done a 9.8km swim, only 200m shy of an Olympic Swim Marathon. By my splits, I was still on for a 3 hour 22minute swim split, which would have still had me in the top ten. I had still worked my ass off on the bike to hold my 'lead' for the 98km bike. I still had gritted my teeth through the most painful marathon I had ever done, and came out the other side.

With my adjusted swim split, I would've only lost 2 places in the race too, though I think if I cam out in 10th as opposed to 1st, my bike would have been more conservative and my run wouldn't have been such a trainwreck, I arguably could've done a faster time over all! Well, that's what I'm telling myself anyway.

Long story short, I was still proud of everything I achieved on the day.

Now for the Post-Mortem.

Is this the most equal triathlon out there? Probably. If I had my proper funning fitness that I had in previous seasons, all my splits probably would have been with within 30 minutes of each other. The full distance is a bit extreme, but the half distance looks like a great event for comparing your disciplines' strengths against each other.

Is it the most complete endurance race? I think not. I am definitely of the opinion that the Ironman swim is way too short, and the idea of starting with a swim marathon seems a lot fairer. People would actually have to focus on swim training for a start! However, I don't think cutting the bike distance is the answer. My complaint about the IM swim being the same as a training session for a swimmer would be hypocritical if I said that 60 miles is an endurance cycling distance! Sure it tends to the concept of spending the same amount of time on each discipline, but another way to looking at it is the effort on each. The swim is 1km above an Olympic swim marathon, and the run is a marathon, it just seems right that the bike would be 100miles. To me the ultimate 'full distance triathlon' would have a 10km swim, 180km bike and 42km run, and the various distances - half, olympic and sprint - would be derived from dividing that down. It will never happen thought, it's simply not marketable to the masses but there's my two cents on that.

In any case, that is not a criticism of this race, it advertises itself as the equaliser triathlon and that's what it is. Even in training I felt like I was training equally in swimming cycling and running, a massive difference from the bike heavy training of Ironman.

I'd highly recommend the event, in any of the distances, and hope I convince some more Pembrokeshire crazies to go next year.

Myself, Karen & John celebrating later that evening.