Winter 2012 Ballbuster Duathlon Race Report

I must love this race as it was my 7th straight participation in this bi-annual duathlon held at Box Hill in March & November. The now famous Ballbuster duathlon consists of an 8 mile loop with the Zig Zag climb up to the National Trust cafe at the end of each lap which you run once then bike 3 times and then run for a final loop making 5 ascents of Box Hill in total with 16 miles of running and 24 miles on the bike.

My first attempt at the race was in Winter 2009 in which I clocked a 3:37:43 (185th place) I remember being pretty happy with that at the time. Since then I have gradually reduced my finishing time to a PB prior to Sunday’s race of 3:08:55 (49th place)
This year since getting coached by Steve Lumley my performances over all distances have gone up another level so I was hopefully realistically targeting a sub 3 hour finish this time round and had calculated that I needed something like a 51 min first run a 1:15 bike and a 52 min second run to get the job done with 2 minutes for transitions. It meant there was no slack whatsoever for any mechanicals or even calls of nature!
Sunday morning was a pretty cold 2 degrees to start with but it was a beauty of a day with no discernible wind and dry roads this was a massive bonus as I needed all the assistance I could get! The view down to Betchworth from the lookout point next to the start was absolutely stunning

A great day for a race...

As it was remembrance Sunday the race director called for a minutes silence just before the start and then the horn went off and it was the usual charge of the light brigade bun fight that goes on at every duathlon I have raced at, with what seems like everyone going off at a suicidal and totally unsustainable pace, myself included!

I had made a decision that whatever happened I would put myself in a position for a sub 3 at the end of run 1 which meant that I had to get round in circa 6:40 pace this meant hitting the bottom of the Zig Zag at just under 6:30 pace as you obviously slow down a fair bit on the climb. The first 2 miles of the run are mostly uphill and within a few minutes I was really feeling it running at the necessary pace, sub 3 at this point felt like a pipe dream! Happily the downhill started soon enough and the pace started to feel more sustainable. I hit the bottom of Zig Zag just off schedule and as a result had to work a bit harder than I would have liked up the hill. Run 1 done in 51:31 and I was in 50th place overall.

Uphill all the way....

T1 went without any dramas in 38 seconds and I was out on the bike for the first of 3 laps. I have a power meter but I always just ride the Ballbuster to feel. My best ever bike split here was 1:16:25 which I knew from the Garmin file was 18.5mph so I was hoping for something quicker than that. I didn’t feel particularly great but on the first lap I was making up quite a lot of places, once you get on to laps 2 & 3 it gets pretty busy with the slower people you are lapping and you have no idea if you are gaining places or not.

A beautiful ride up the iconic Box Hill.
By the end of lap 2 my average speed was 19.5 mph so I knew bar an accident that I was on for a bike PB. That accident nearly happened on the sharp left turn at Lodgebottom Road, when I turned to find some idiot had parked their black Range Rover right on the corner and then to compound matters another Range Rover was coming the other way leaving me and several others a gap of about 3 feet to navigate through at speed, I can’t believe we all stayed on our bikes, if it was wet there would have been carnage…. a lucky escape.
Up Zig Zag for the penultimate time that day and the bike was done in 1:13:07 (11th fastest bike split of the day) I had made up 36 places and was now in 14th place overall although I had no idea of this at that time.

Hat, gloves & arm warmers ditched and I am out for the final run with T2 done with no hiccups in 42 seconds. I know from my cumulative time of a shade under 2:06 that I just need to hold it together for the final run with anything under 54 minutes and sub 3 was in the bag.
Run 2 never starts well in at the Ballbuster, those first few steps when pushing your bike after the dismount line are a sensation like no other, your legs don’t feel like they belong to you and the idea of running 8 miles at a decent pace feels utterly impossible. This isn’t helped by the first 2 miles heading mostly uphill again and also a huge painful stitch in my side but I knew from experience that these normally subside within a mile or 2. My thinking was to try and dig in as much as possible for the uphill and stay at a decent pace and then try and recover on the downhill section before the final climb.

I overtook an Army Tri chap fairly quickly who was struggling a bit but pretty soon after that a different Army chap cruised past followed fairly soon after by a fella who made me feel like I was walking as he disappeared into the distance very quickly! So I had lost 2 places but hey ho sub 3 was the goal and I had to just run my own race. On to the downhill section and I did get some respite as holding a decent pace is much easier but then I hear that disconcerting sound of footsteps approaching again and another chap overtakes and puts a pretty decent gap in to me, this feels all wrong when you are over 2.5 hours into a race and running at 6:30 pace! A girl by the side of the road around now says I am in 16th place which gives me a lift as I have never been this far up the field before. Only about 2 miles to go now with pretty much just the climb left and I see the Army chap up ahead who cruised past me in mile 1, I wasn’t expecting to see him again as he looked super smooth earlier but this race can bite you on the arse if you overcook yourself. I went past him just before the left turn on to the Zig Zag and he sportingly gave me some encouragement, I raised my arm in acknowledgement as speaking was not easy at this point. At the bottom of the hill I have 2:46:30 on the watch, just 13 minutes or so of agony to go and it’s in the bag! Just suck it up and get on with it.

More encouragement when I see the final chap who had overtaken me a couple of miles back coming slowly back to me, I seem to be pretty strong going uphill even though I don’t do much specific hill training so I was pretty confident I would reel him in. Having a target also gives you something to focus on and distract your brain when it is screaming at you to STOP…. which is handy! I catch him by hairpin 2 and it’s just the long straight and final turn to go but the minutes are ticking away and it is still just under a mile to the finish line, crazy thoughts of slowing down and having a nice little walk break are ignored. Round the final right hander and now finally I know it’s done as I have 2:57 on the clock. I cross the line in 2:58:39 for 14th place overall, 4th in my age group, a massive 10 minute PB on the course and a huge personal goal achieved …..satisfying stuff ☺
I will be back again in March the 8th time but can say with some certainty that I will not be taking another 10 minutes off!

Challenge Roth Race Report

Training has gone really well for this race with over 6 months of uninterrupted training which included the intervention of a coach from mid March. This was a turning point in my training as up till this point I was trying to follow a generic plan to make me achieve my Sub 10 target but I knew I was floundering. The quality and volume of training increased dramatically and proper periodisation with cut back weeks was introduced for the first time since I started endurance sport in 2007. I have to be honest that I was a bit unhappy about the run volume as it seemed in those first couple of months to be too high but I knuckled down and got on with the plan.

Early season results started to bode well with my first ever AG wins at Thames Turbo Sprint and then The Swashbuckler Middle Distance which included a 14 mile run split which took me by surprise…mmm maybe this coach knew what he was doing!

Many others have covered the epic nature of this race and the fantastic support so I won’t repeat much other than to say I agree!  The social side of the whole trip was  fantastic with a big group of friends racing including about half of Black Line London!  Sharing theses big race experiences with friends plus making new ones is probably the best thing about long distance training and racing.

So back of fag packet pre race expectation was Swim 1:05 ish Bike 5-5:15 ish Run 320-3:35 ish. Add 5 mins for T’s and that would even in a worst case scenario get me my key goal of Sub 10 hours. But in all honesty I was riding well and had heard so much about how “fast” the bike course was that I had cockily thought that the bike would be nearer to 5 and that would give me a comfort buffer on the run if things got tough.

Things couldn’t have started better with a really calm pre race build up on a beautiful morning, no rushing around, no faffing it was really quite chilled with the PA playing some nice soothing classical sounding stuff including the Gladiator theme…nice!  I seriously felt like I had no nerves whatsoever which is really quite weird considering the amount of investment we put into preparing for these races, I honestly get more nervous before the Thames Turbo sprints!

Unlike most Mdot races the swim at Roth has to be done in waves so the carnage of 3000 people starting at once is thankfully avoided, I couldn’t believe how civilised the swim start was, no jostling for position and virtually no biff at all. I tried to find some feet and draft but I am totally shit at it and gave up trying after a while and was on my own after about 15 mins. By halfway I was in serious discomfort from my goggles which in my wisdom I had done up really tight as they had leaked in the practice swim on Thursday, I thought I could ignore it but the pain started to become unbearable so at about 2/3rds distance I stopped and pressed the little buttons on each side that release the tension, that solved the problem albeit now my goggles were full of water…arse…Ho hum this was preferable to feeling like my brain was going to explode.

Although I was swimming aerobically and was in no discomfort by about the 40 minute mark I was starting to experience my first low point of the day, maybe it was the nature of the long boring 1.2 mile out 1.2 mile back swim course or the goggles issue, I don’t really know but I wasn’t feeling the love at all and when I got screaming cramp in both calves at the final buoy I was really not feeling it. Still I figured that once on the bike it would be happy days on those beautiful smooth roads….. swim completed in 1:04:38 so exactly where I expected.

T1 was smooth and I was on my bike in less than 3 mins and initially all felt fine apart from the residual cramp stiffness in my calves. The first few miles were super fast and within 10 mins my average speed was 22.5 MPH and I was thinking that this was going to be a fun and fast bike ride. Then I turned a corner and was surprised by how windy it suddenly seemed, the average speed started instantly dropping but more alarmingly than that I realised I was feeling totally shit, my legs felt like jelly my calves and hip flexors hurt and 220 watts which was my conservative power target felt incredibly hard, so hard that I was actually struggling to hit it. The day before I had gone for an easy spin with PB & Ian and 200 watts felt like I was tickling the pedals and was producing speeds of anything up to 27 MPH, right now 200 watts felt like 270 watts and was achieving below 20 MPH

Yes it was windy and therefore slower but this didn’t account for why 200 watts felt so incredibly hard? I had the brainwave that maybe my power meter was out of calibration so I recalibrated it on the fly….. which made no difference at all …It dawned on me that I was having a bad patch, this is something I was expecting and prepared for…. just not at the beginning of the bike….and not for 3 solid hours! So hours of dark thoughts ensued,  feeling like I was a shit athlete and that Ironman racing was stupid and that I was never doing another Ironman etc. etc. until I gradually realised that I was passing people and that my legs felt quite good…FINALLY!!  I was back in business, the last 2 hours 20 of the bike were completely different to the first 3, my watts were up,  perceived effort was down and I was passing lots of people… bizarre but what a relief.

So off the bike in 5:20:22 which was way slower than I had planned for, a quick T1 in 1:47 and I am out running with exactly 6:29:22 on the clock, this meant I had to run a 3:30 marathon for a sub 10. My recent run performances had given me the encouragement that this was doable but from the very first step I felt under immense pressure as I knew that I had no leeway whatsoever…and it was now hot and sunny.

On my coaches instructions I held back on the first 10k and instead of running to feel which probably would have been 7:30ish pace I deliberately ran at 8 min pace as I had been told that this was the best way to maintain pace and run a close to even split. The first 3 miles did feel too slow but by mile 4 the prescribed 8 min pace was feeling pretty tough and I had 22 of the bastards left to run! I was having negative thoughts about the pace being unsustainable and also had a killer stitch! I saw Troy heading back to town looking good followed a bit later by Jamie and then PB who was looking good too and sounding chipper.

Happily the stitch lifted and I ploughed on running at exactly 8 min pace give or take a few seconds. My guts felt a bit tight but nothing too uncomfortable and I managed to get about 10 gels down me and 4 salt capsules with plenty of water in the first 15 or so miles before I hit the coke. I also took full advantage of the sponges and put a pair under each side of my tri top and 1 under 1 cap at every aid station, they really make a huge difference as without them I know my HR would go through the roof but it was levelled off quite nicely at about 152 BPM which was perfect

I saw the boys again heading back to town and PB was still in a good mood and moving well which was good to see albeit I was jealous that they were nearly home and I had over 10 miles left!

By mile 17 my pace started to drop and I knew that I was off schedule for sub 10, my brain started to have a conversation with itself with one side saying “10:05 isn’t too bad it’s still a big PB and it is hot and the bike was windy” and the other side saying something along the lines of “fuck that, you came here for sub 10 just HTFU” I also knew that a lot of people were tracking me this was a big motivator to dig deeper. I went round the final turnaround at about mile 18 and realised why my pace was slowing, I had been running uphill for the past mile and not noticed! This gave me a lift and I made hay on the way back down with a 7:45 mile this was followed not long after by a fairly long uphill section through the forest, I figured that as it was shady I would try to stay on pace up the hill and recover on the flat at the top. This worked a treat and I managed an 8:05 mile which gave me another lift.  The next few miles along the canal were in shade which gave me another lift and I ticked them off in 7:34, 7:59 & 7:50. I kept trying to do the maths which ranged constantly between thinking I had a buffer of 5 minutes or so and then that I had absolutely no spare time! With 4 miles to go there was a nice downhill section also in the shade, I hadn’t remembered it being a hill when I had come the other way, I made some more hay with another couple of sub 8 min miles and with just 2 miles to go even my befuddled brain could do the maths that barring an explosion I was home and hosed in under 10 hours. The last section is initially a bit cruel as it takes you past the noise of the finishing chute into the old town of Roth onto a cobbled square but with a big sound stage playing euro pop and hundreds of cheering people but it was actually my favourite part of the run and I high fived all the kids as I went through and the announcer called out my name and club, it was a real goose bump moment. I was running on pure adrenaline now and had sped up considerably, the noise of the chute got louder and I had the presence of mind to avoid a Macca Kona 2007  finishing photo and removed my sponges! The chute was awesome and I fist pumped the crowd as I crossed the line in 9:55:32 🙂

It was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever done to date but it is also the most satisfying as I could see Sub 10 slipping away and I dug deeper than I thought I could to make it happen. I realised afterwards that I had negative split the marathon, the last 3 miles were 7:36 7:46 and 7:24 which is seriously surprising and pleasing. It has taught me that there is possibly always a bit more left in the tank if you really want something bad enough.

 

Big thanks must go out to my coach Steve Lumley who set me all the stupid run sessions that got me under 10 hours

 

Paul Burton’s Ironman Wales

So, Ironman Wales… My main target race this year was Roth in July. At 9.51 the time wasn’t quite as fast as I was hoping, but with a solid performance, a 3.37 run and a sub-10 in the bank, I was happy.

So Wales was just a bit of fun – a bonus race, if you like. A Kona slot was always going to be a stretch given the strong field of European slot chasers at Tenby, and with a tough course and conditions it’s not a race to go chasing a time. I wanted to bank another race… apparently it takes five ironmans until you “get it”, and this was to be number three for me.

Having said that, I was feeling in great form so was hopeful of a race that I could be proud of. After my first Ironman in 2010 I was stuffed for weeks. With that in the back of my mind I was ready to pull the plug if I didn’t recover from Roth. But three weeks later I was back in full training and put in a really good six week block with a couple of good short races including a sub-2 hour Olympic, and some solid run training in an attempt to improve the weakest part of my ironman racing to date. So I was really excited and, unlike Roth, not nervous at all. That’s a helpful place to be, it turns out. My strategy was simple – be sensible but give it a good go and take some risks if feeling good.

A number of the Black Line crew had entered the race, as well as a few others I know like fast runners Richard ‘Spud’ Lewis and Rory Maguire, Ben Unsworth and Pete Stewart from Thames Turbo, plus Jenny Hill who we met out in Roth and I had bullied into doing Tenby claiming she’d have a great shot at Kona. So it was going to be a fun weekend. Unfortunately neither Deenzy nor Troy could make it in the end – a shame as they both had great races in Roth and we were looking forward to duking it out again – so BLL honours were to be contested by Nico, Ian and I. Having trained a lot with Nico in recent weeks I knew he was in great shape. With his bike and, in particular, run strength I would be glancing over my shoulder for most of the race knowing that if he caught me it would be tough to stay with him.

We did a recce a few weeks before… the sea swim was challenging, the bike course was a brute, and the run was up and down a ruddy great big hill. So it needed respect! It also showed how beautiful Pembrokeshire is. The bike course has some wonderful terrain, including the blustery but epic Freshwater West and the gorgeous sea views at Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot. The day before the race we got a stunning sunrise on our early morning jog at Saundersfoot. Ian, Jenny and I used that to do some Olympic style larking around (wouldn’t be the only time that weekend).

 

Last preamble before getting onto the race… some of my family came down to support, which is a first for a long race. Mum, Dad, sister Carey, her boyfriend Jon and their new puppy Wiggins. I can’t say my parents were that thrilled about the prospect – they watched me at Windsor once but that was about it. Understandably Wales in the wind and rain didn’t thrill them. It turns out they had a ball – spectating at ironman is a long day but with a break for a game at Tenby Golf Club during the bike, they were content and loved the swim and run. Happy days, and I think they now know why I love this sport.

RACE

I was delighted with the weather forecast… cool, dry till early afternoon and 20mph gusts. You don’t enter races in Wales in September expecting sunshine. Although having opted for a disc wheel on the bike I was crossing my fingers the gusts wouldn’t propel me over the hedgerows.

SWIM

First surprise of the day came at the swim start. Last year they didn’t rope it off and when the gun went most of the field ran up the beach rather than swimming. Despite no mention at the briefing, some genius decided to prevent this by putting a new buoy in – perpendicular to the beach at only 150m out. So there were 1500 of us aiming for one small point. Sharpen your elbows, lads. To avoid massive biff my new strategy was 110% for 2 minutes to the buoy, embrace the lactic pain and then start the race properly once round the buoy. The swim was OK for me. At Roth I had a perfect draft the whole way round and swam great for a 57 min split. Whilst the sea was pretty flat, the small chop did make it hard to find any feet to follow, so I had to do all the hard work myself (bit of karma, I guess). Also, having gone out hard I tired in the second lap. So I was delighted to see 56 mins on the watch on the beach – it was either 100-200m short or we had a good current. Game on.

Onwards and upwards (literally) with the real business of the day. The 1k run to transition is actually one of the highlights of this race. The crowds are huge the entire way – what an atmosphere. Combine that with the sun making its only appearance of the day and it was serene. I would have loved to hit the pause button right there. Unfortunately, having come out of the water in 120th there were 1400 people chasing me down, so best crack on.

BIKE

I whizzed through transition – thanks in part to borrowing Jim Peet’s nifty long sleeved Fusion aero top, worn on top of my tri top under the wetsuit. So whilst others were layering up I went straight out. Ben was grabbing his bike at the same time which perked me up – it meant my swim was solid as he’s faster than me in the drink, and as he’s a strong rider and a fast Ironman (9.30 guy) there was the prospect of riding close to him. It turns out he hasn’t had as much time to train this year, so that wasn’t to be. Probably a good thing as we ruined eachother’s races at Swashbuckler this year smashing it out on the bike!

The bike course is just awesome. The first big loop is rolling rather than hilly, with a headwind out to Angle, via the stunning Freshwater West and then a tailwind back before starting the first of 2 smaller northern loops which had 4 or 5 sharp (10-15%) climbs and very little flat. Rather than set out easy and let the heart rate settle like I did at Roth, I went out steady at 230+ watts and went about chasing folk down. My HR never really settled, but I was happy with that as I now see this as a good sign – I had it at Wimbleball and it tells me I’m fit and fresh enough to push. I was making good progress, barely overtaken and taking loads myself. Then the ‘fun’ started – that being a bunch of Europeans that have a more liberal approach (read blatant) to drafting than the Brits. I’ve had my rant about this. It’s shocking and irritating, but as irritating is the marshals’ failure to penalise anyone. Throughout the first 70 miles I saw 4 distinct pelotons and there was not a single penalty issued. Go figure. My failure was that I let it impact my race – rather than letting the group go and getting on with my race, I shouted some fairly industrial English, went off the front a few times only to get reeled in a few minutes later. So my power was getting erratic, HR climbed and I was getting angry. So I calmed down, let them go and got on with my race. Rant over.

I had a couple of bad patches, but sure as eggs are eggs, they passed and overall I felt strong on the bike and my stomach was behaving itself unlike at Roth. I caught Pete and 2nd woman pro Eimear Mullan around halfway on the bike, had a good natter/whinge with them about the cheating, and then pulled away from them on the flatter section. The crowds on the hill coming out of Saundersfoot and then flying down the hill into Tenby were incredible, and it was great to see friendly faces like Laura, John and Leighton cheering us on. The final loop on the bike is tough because there were now so few targets. It had got a bit harder, as you’d expect with the time and hills, but I felt fine and knew I was having a solid race. Finally Nico caught me at somewhere around 150k. He was seriously shifting, and told me that Rory and Spud were not far behind. That helped to sharpen the focus and pick my pace up – it may have been quiet, but there were fast guys just minutes ahead and behind so there was no time for resting up. Nico kicked on and I kept him in sight for a while before letting him go – who knows, he may have been trashing his race and I shouldn’t ruin mine chasing him.

RUN

Rolled into transition after a 5.44 ride – pretty happy with that, but now the race really starts. It’s always interesting to find out if you have any running legs off the bike at any distance – with the hills and being half an hour longer it had definitely been a harder ride than Roth, so I was fearful they’d be knackered.

It turns out they weren’t and they felt great in the first few miles – it’s always been a pleasant change to get off the bike in an ironman for me. I was holding back but still running quick up the hill. It’s a 4 lap course that weaves around Tenby then goes up a big hill via a couple of out and backs and then straight back down and some more weaving around Tenby. The support was amazing throughout from both the volunteers and crowds, in particular in town where it was rammed and most had been suitably refreshed all day. Lots of fun. Having my family there was amazing – a huge lift. My mum and sister were jumping up and down like jack in the boxes and my Dad was screaming with his fists clenched!  For all supporters out there, you really do make a difference, thank you! I saw them 2 or 3 times on each lap. Great fun.

Nico was a couple of minutes up the road, Rory was a couple of minutes back. But they were both flying and capable of close to 3 hour ironman marathons, so racing them would have been stupid. The first lap was great then just like Roth I started to slow considerably before half way. So lap 2 was a bit rubbish, but it was fuelling rather than fatigue so once again when I got on the coke at halfway I came right back to life. In the future I’m on the coke from the start of the marathon – it’s rescued me twice now, so I need to eliminate the bad patches! Spud flew past me just like in Roth, although this time nearer halfway than the start. Lap 3 was solid and then, recovery complete, lap 4 was my best of the day. I had been chasing Jenny down for about an hour (she was a lap behind and moving really nicely) but when I finally caught her at the start of the final lap my legs were feeling better and better so I kicked on up the hill, shouting at her to go get her Kona slot. I was managing 4.30km pace back down the hill and then also on the flats at the end, and was able to ‘race’ properly, taking a number of places. Bonza. Nico had got 6 or 7 minutes up on me by halfway but in the final lap I saw the gap had shrunk significantly at the final out and back… so the hammer went down, but the sight of me meant the same for him, so I couldn’t close the gap and he got to the line 3 mins before me. A fun race… they breed them strong in South Africa!

 

 

Finished with a 3.18 marathon, which sounds terrific, but unfortunately it was only 40k on my Garmin, so more like 3.30 on an accurate course. Next time maybe the WTC can manage to get it right?! I’ll lend them my Garmin if they need? You can only run the course in front of you though and I ran at faster pace than Roth on a much tougher course, so I’m delighted with the progress.

 

Final scores on the doors were 10.09 for 20th in the M30 AG and 88th overall. 20 mins behind the final Kona spot, but I was delighted to ride steady and run faster than at Roth off that hard bike. A big step in the right direction and loads more learned. My swim was 120th, bike 89th and run also 120th. So the previously weak run now looks a bit more balanced, like my short course results.

Much like Roth it was great to see a load of mates laying it on the line, and almost to a man (and woman) having a great race. Gutted for Rory and Jenny to miss the Kona places by 2 or 3 mins each – although Jen got an impressive 3rd place in her AG and trophy for her efforts. Next time, guys! Combine this with a local community that so passionately embraced the race and it was a wonderful day, despite the drizzle on the run. I would recommend Wales to absolutely anyone, and I hope to go back one day. Hopefully not next year, mind, as inspired by racing with mates that are chasing Kona slots a number of us have all entered Ironman South Africa in April 2013. It’s typically been less competitive than the European Ironman races and it’s just gone up from 30 to 50 slots, so there is no lack of motivation this winter. If I can continue to improve my cycling and get in a good winter of high mileage running then I’m going there with a clear aim – to earn myself the right to throw a lot of good cash at a little race in the Pacific in October 2013. The dream lives on…

2012 has been a terrific season for me and this was a fitting end. I’ve loved every minute, most of all the banter, miles, smiles, hills, sunshine, rain and pain in training and racing with old and new friends. Whilst it’s been a year best described as ‘transitional’ on a personal level, these moments have been the highlight, so thank you all. Now it’s feet up and time to follow the black line to the beach. Mine’s a rum and coke. The best sports fuel in the world. The season’s dead. Long live the off season.

 

 

Challenge Roth Race Report

It’s hard to know where to begin. And it’s hard to believe that it was a whole year ago that I filled in my details on the Challenge Roth website and entered my first full distance event. But fuck me, it came around quick.

The weeks immediately running up to the race had been a bit disrupted by a busy spell at work, some illness in the house and some other life stuff such as going to see The Stone Roses in Manchester the weekend before (amazing!) that takes priority – usual rules for age groupers –  so of course my mind going into the trip was filled with thoughts of the sessions I had missed rather then the hours I had done in that time.

This was always going to be an epic trip. Not only is Roth a legendary event, but the road trip itself with @JamieWardell and @TroyMaloy, driving all 800 odd KM’s to Nuremberg meant epicness guaranteed.

12 hours in the car passed with loads of great banter, top tunes and surprisingly quickly but don’t believe them when they say the Autobahns are the best roads in the world 🙁

Our first sight of the course came the next day, Friday, when we headed to the swim start. The swim takes place in a busy working canal which is closed to all traffic for practice and the event so there was a fairly small window to get in the water. Although the buoys were not yet laid out, we knew roughly where the turn around points were (or so we thought – more of that later) and let me tell you, when you can see km’s up a long straight canal, it looks a long way. The vibes were really great, and we hung out with fellow London based friends Paul DPaul  B, LauraMatt (who saved a hunger meltdown by cracking out about 2 kilo’s of @FreespeedLondon raisins), AndrewIan and Ash.

From there we hit a local cafe for coffee and breakfast before driving a good section of the bike course. The perception is that it’s flat. It’s not, and it’s more than rolling. We had the bikes in the car so we stopped just before the steepest climb and rode an out and back section for about an hour. Being out an the bikes cranked the excitement up a notch and with some smooth German roads it was clear there would be some very fast sections. From there to registration and a stroll around the Expo where I managed to lose my beloved Oakley sunglasses. Most bleak.

Saturday was about a few last minute tweeks and gathering supplies before trying to rest up as much as possible, getting some carbs in and trying to keep a lid on excitement. I  felt like I wanted to wrestle someone…

As always, the night before didn’t deliver the most amazing sleep ever, not least because of the 03:30 alarm call. With Jamie & Troy in a wave 45 minutes before mine, plus the usual fear of running out of time, we were happy to be up and heading to the swim start. What on paper seemed like a mission of parking, walking to the start, dropping off bags etc actually turned out to be no trouble. Challenge have got the admin down pat and this was the recurring theme throughout – they have a very different (I think better) feel about them to WTC which seems much more corporate and less personal.

A last check of the bikes, loading up nutrition and pumping up tyre’s and it was almost show time. The atmosphere was amazing – really buzzy and with great building tension in the air. With wetsuit pulled on, I made my way to the start and watched a couple of waves go off – the sound of the cannon at the start of each waive was thunderous and the perfect way to start this epic event.

THE SWIM: 1:05:14

As already mentioned, the swim is a long, straight drag in the canal, a turnaround, then past the start point under a bridge packed with spectators before turning again for home. As expected there was a lot of thrashing, but I had adopted a position at one side to I think escaped the worst. I felt pretty relaxed and was annoyed I hadn’t got closer to the front as I was definitely held up by the swimmers in front of me. Other than losing my cap after about 15 minutes, and a couple of kicks to the face it was pretty uneventful and I felt like I had a good relaxed rhythm and a solid catch. By now I was going past swimmers 3 waves on front of mine meaning there was some navigation to be done to side-step the bottlenecks. All was well until we approached the aforementioned bridge when I stepped it up a gear thinking we were almost home. But (and here is a lesson in proper prep), the final turnaround marker wasn’t where I thought it was going to be and we had probably about another 300m to go. So, I had to adjusted and didn’t let it freak me out but I was kicking myself for the amateur-hour error.

T1 0:03:20

Usually stress free, I hit a problem here – someone had either moved or accidentally grabbed my bike bag. There was nothing other than a small towel and socks in it, but it meant I didn’t have a bag to put my wetsuit in. This really threw the volunteers, but one girl eventually took it from me and said she’s take care of it. I wasn’t sure what that meant but trusted in karma to return it to me somehow.

THE BIKE 05:29:56

The course here is 2 laps and that is how I broke it down in my mind. The advice form those vastly more experienced than me was unanimous: don’t get excited and take it easy on the bike. Although my use of a power meter was really about gathering data, my slightly unscientific plan was not to let power go over about 250w on the climbs. At the front of my mind all the time was the fact I had to run my first ever marathon when I got off after 180km. Looking back on the data, the ride is littered with spikes so a have some work to do on this!

There were a couple of notable features. The first was that it was very windy – apparently the windiest Roth on record. The second lap was worse, and the common view was that even for the best cyclists this might have meant 20 minutes. The second was the Solaraberg climb, the most legendary section where thousands of locals come to support the athletes and narrow the road to single file. It really took my breath away on the first lap and I felt like a TDF rider. The power definitely spiked then!

My nutrition plan was not very well defined. I had 7 gels on a squeezy bottle, several bars in my bento box and 2 drinks bottles – one with isotonic drink, the other with an electrolyte drink. I’d also taken one tablet to help with GI at the suggestion of Tam Lewis – this had worked really well for me in my last 70.3 and I’d avoided some of the GI issues encountered at previous races.

At about 150k I was starting to get a sore back from being on the aero bars, but otherwise felt pretty decent physically and despite the wind, there were stretches where over 40kph that felt effortless. 2 Ibuprofen sorted the back but not the mind fuckery and I really wanted the bike to end quickly. That brief bleak moment passed after about 15 minutes and before I know it we were rolling into T2.

T2 00:03:27

A great example of how Challenge look after the athletes: Volunteers see you coming in and clock your number, finding your bag and handing it right to you. Another volunteeer practically put my shoes on for me  and handed me my fuel belt and visor while another put suncream on my neck and shoulders. Amazing.

THE RUN. 04:21:06

Oh my….the run! I know it would be all about the run which is definitely my weakest discipline. And I’ve never run a marathon before, so experience = ZILCH!

Things started really well, probably too well. My plan was to aim for a 3:45 marathon at a constant 5:20 pace. I felt surprisingly good going into the run. At my previous event in Mallorca i knew within a minute that the run was going to be a ‘mare so it was pleasing to feel so positive – so much so that I had to really slow myself down in the first meters. Before I knew it, I was closing in on 10km with the only memorable point hearing @TroyMaloy bellow “P-Doooogggg!” at me long before I saw him.

The course at Roth is flat, with much of it being long canal-side stretches. We’d been warned that this can be a bit of a head fuck because the scenery doesn’t change and at times you can see 5km’s ahead. In the end this wan’t too bad and it is punctuated by looping into small villages at the turnaround points at either end where, like on the bike course, the level of support from local people is pretty amazing.

The 15km point passed and so far so good. Then 20km…still not too bad, but somewhere around the 25km point things started to get a bit ugly. The legs were getting tired and the lack of strategy on the bike nutrition started to comeback to bite me as the feeling of having a brick sitting in my stomach grew. Up to this point I’d walked a couple of the aid stations and taken coke and water from the start but this, on top of the gels and bars from the bike all started getting a bit much. There was no danger of a Paula Radcliffe style crisis, but I was getting really uncomfortable and was now having to walk more frequently. The legs were really tight now, and the focus was all about getting from aid station to aid station. I really dont remember much about the run other than @JamieWardell shouting at me at one aid station  (I think he knew I was struggling) and thinking “This is really going to get shitty” quite a lot. For one brief moment at around 30km a horrible thought entered my mind…”I’m not going to finish this”. Then I remembered all the amazing messages of support, good luck and positive vibes I’d received before the race from family, friends and even strangers and kicked that right into touch.

I couldn’t stomach any more coke or sports drink so decided late in the run to try the chicken soup. “Chicken soup? Whaaaa?” I can hear you say. But to be fair, it was magical – my stomach immediately felt a little better, enough that I could at least get a shuffle going and as well as alleviating the monotony of sweet drinks I also amused myself for a while by thinking of this.

By now I had about 10km to go and I knew I just had to grind it out. I kept moving, except for one moment when my brain just said “Sit down, IMMEDIATELY!” which I did without any say in the matter. Then I thought, “What the fuck are you doing” and managed to get myself up and going again.

A few more walking periods punctuated the by now well off the pace running but on the last turnoff the canal path and thought a section of forrest I was ticking off the km’s. With about 4km to go the route enters the town of Roth where the crowds start building up and I could hear the music from the finish line PA. The course loops into the town before heading for the finish and I have to say that the last 3 km felt like the longest of the day. But nothing lasts forever. Running under the big banner over the entrance to the expo and onto the red carpet was glorious, but even now a sharp cramp in my stomach made me stop for about 5 seconds.

The finish line at Roth is inside a purpose built arena in the town centre, and it’s a bit like finishing a race in a night club. Crowds, noise, music, colour, energy – really a memorable experience.

And so I crossed the line, had a medal put round my neck and proceeded to collapse on the grass and be hit by a wave of emotion. @TroyMaloy was waiting for me as close as he could get and I’ve never been so happy to see a friend. A few man tears and hugs later and I was ready to sit down and rest.

Final TIme: 11:03:00 Full split details HERE.

So, my first full distance race completed and with a few days to mull things over, here are some observations that I’ll be taking into my next one, and using in my training:

  1. The marathon can kick your arse.
  2. You can’t really know what to expect until you do one.
  3. A solid and tested nutrition strategy on the bike is critical to your run.
  4. I raced with power, but need to dial that in much more efficiently and use it more effectively. At least now I’ve started a data history.
  5. The marathon can kick your arse.
  6. No matter how good you feel, stick to the plan on the run.
  7. Friends are awesome.
  8. I keep saying it, and I’m not sponsored, but Xendurance works – I’m amazed at how not-shit I felt the days after the race.
  9. Much work needs to be done on my running.
  10. The marathon can kick your arse.
Despite my final time being about 30 minutes slower than I had secretly been hoping for, I feel pretty positive. I think if I were to (metaphorically) do this again tomorrow I could get close to that. Maybe that’s the post-race, pain-has-faded Paul talking……

As a final point, I have to mention some particularly amazing things about this event.

  1. Volunteers are amazing, brilliant and vital Remember to say thank you to as many of them as you can, wherever you race.
  2. The local people come out to support in their thousands – 200,000 apparently. That gives me goosebumps.
  3. And stick around for the final finisher and fireworks – it’s a massive party atmosphere and just felt right to be there