When people are asked what they last did for for seven and a half hours it usually involves sleeping. This is the general answer, the sensible one that most normal folk would say. And before three weeks ago, it is also the answer I would have given.
Well, actually over the week leading up to this race I had nowhere near this amount of sleep due to the less than conducive amount of adrenaline rushing through my body. Even at 4am on race day I was still excited rather than nervous.
I picked up Keith at 5am, endured the usual mocking despite him being uncharacteristically grumpy, and made the journey to Sandy Balls (which I still can’t say or write without smirking), parked up and got the coach down to the lake where we bumped into another first time middle distance Hedgie, Amna who was also celebrating her birthday – what a way to do it too!
I thought maybe the nerves would kick in when we got to the lake and I saw all the bikes racked up and how many people would be around me in the mass start but I was still surprisingly calm.
I laid out my bike kit ready for when the swim was done and then went for the obligatory loo stop before getting into my wetsuit. By this time the other two Hedgies doing the event, Dave and Martyn, had arrived and after the initial greeting we all finished getting ready with very little chatter before heading lakeside for the final briefing.
By this point my feet were freezing from the early morning dew on the grass, something I hadn’t experienced in training before as I had always worn flip flops from the changing area and got straight in the water. I wouldn’t say I panicked, but my initial thought was that if my feet were this cold now, what would they be like after the swim and then they’d be even colder on the bike and I wouldn’t feel my feet and then I would be running on numb feet and fall over….OK so I panicked a little bit but then we were led to the water and I was relieved to find that the water was warmer than my feet – phew!
We wished each other luck and were ushered into position at which point I lost sight of everyone but Keith. He wished me luck one last time and said to make sure I didn’t start in the middle of the pack otherwise I would get trampled on. I looked around me and I was in the middle of the pack. Bugger. So I made myself to the back of the pack. Better. We were held for a while as they tried to get everyone behind the start line and I tried to ignore all the weeds (which felt like netting) that was wrapping itself around my feet. Then the next panic crossed my mind of them getting so tangled that I wouldn’t be able to swim and then I would drown and all my training would be wasted (and I would be dead). I was then cursing Keith for mentioning being trampled on.
However, the 10 second countdown interrupted these thoughts and then we were off and I didn’t drown or die. In fact, after swimming past all the muck that had been dredged up by the mass start, it was a really enjoyable swim. I just swam as I have done every week in training for the past four months and apart from a few people who couldn’t sight properly and therefore kept drifting in front of me, I felt very comfortable. It was two laps of just under a kilometre each and on the second lap the sun was beginning to rise and I could see the gorgeous red sky appearing over the trees – it was going to be a good day.
The swim was over quicker than I thought it would be. I had no idea what time I had done as I didn’t wear a watch for the swim but by the time I had successfully got out of the water without falling back in again or feeling very unsteady (which I have never been able to achieve in training before), walked/run to transition, taken my wetsuit off and found my watch, it was 7:50am. This must have been at least two minutes since I left the lake so I was really happy with a sub 50 minute swim. I was even happier when I got to T2 to find out that we had started seven minutes late so I had probably managed a sub 45-minute swim! Woohoo, I had never swum that fast before. My official swim time, which included the transition, was 47 minutes so given I spent about 5 minutes in transition I was super chuffed.
Having never raced with clip in pedals before, I was unsure how I would find it walking or running in cycling shoes the 100m or so to the mount line. I had never practised this in training beyond walking from the car to a place where I didn’t have to start pedalling and steer at the same time but it soon became apparent that running with a bike after a 1.9km swim was never going to happen. And seeing as I set off without a hitch I am guessing that walking in them was not a problem – if I am honest I don’t really remember too much about transition or setting off on the bike. I do, however, remember how freaking cold it was cycling through a wooded area of the forest at 8 o’clock in the morning, soaking wet. And I couldn’t feel my feet!
In fact I couldn’t feel my feet until I had been cycling for about 40 miles! It took until the end of the first lap (about 14 miles) to feel like I was actually comfortable on the bike. This is not that unusual for me so I wasn’t too concerned, especially as at my first check point my average pace was higher than my race plan – not by too much that I had gone out too quick, but at my dream race pace. I did a time check at that same place too and I was 10 minutes up on where I had expected to be at that point – this was more to do with the first lap being 2 miles shorter than I thought it would be but I was delighted to find myself ahead of schedule.
The second lap was harder. This caught me a bit off guard as I knew the middle part of my long rides had always been my strongest in training. More specifically, I had done the course itself in training a couple of times and knew there were a couple of stretches that were long and flat where I could get my speed up so it was quite a surprise and rather frustrating to find that the wind I thought just felt tough on the first lap because I was still finding my legs, was in fact getting stronger through the first of these faster sections.
My average pace was dropping but I didn’t worry too much as I knew that the final 8 miles or so of the lap was where I could really pick up some speed and bring this pace back up again. And I did. By the end of the second lap it was back up again albeit 0.2mph slower than after the first lap – this was more than acceptable. If I kept going like this, even if I dropped another 0.2/3mph on the final lap then I knew with the distance now being 2 miles shorter than I first thought, I would come in just over my dream time. Suspecting from my first check point that we had begun a few minutes late, this was good news.
And then I saw my family for the first time who had come down to support me. I was grinning from ear to ear as I approached them. And then I saw my sister. I didn’t know she was coming. In fact I didn’t know until the following morning that she had got up at 6am to travel all the way from Kent to probably end up seeing me for less than 5 minutes throughout the whole race. She said to me afterwards that I didn’t even smile when I saw them. What she doesn’t know is that seeing her there touched me so much that I was doing everything in my power to fight back the tears. Partly because I needed to stay focused on the last 20 miles but mainly because I was approaching quite a steep downhill section with a very uneven road surface and I didn’t want to risk tears obstructing my vision. But it was all good. I survived the scary hill and was into my final lap. I stopped briefly after the next uphill section to switch my water bottles over and then I was off again. I felt good and couldn’t wait to see everyone there again.
But then it all started to go a bit wrong. And by wrong, I mean not to plan, nothing actually went wrong. However, the wind was not in my race plan and on the third lap it was stronger than ever. To put it into some kind of perspective, in training I was able to reach speeds of up to 18mph along this stretch whereas on race day I was struggling to get above 10mph on the final lap. I was nearly in tears at one point, not just because it was so hard battling against the wind like this for what felt like half the race but because I could see my dream time rapidly slipping away. It had dropped much more than on the previous lap and I knew I was going to struggle to bring it back up, even with the fast section ahead. I had been warned that there would be at least a few tough points in a race of this length where I would need more mental than physical strength and this was the first. And thankfully the worst.
That windy section seemed to go on forever and I have never been so relieved to see a marshal in all my races as I was to see the one at the end of this road where I could start to turn out of the wind. My head was all over the place. I was so upset that I had lost so much time yet I was really proud that I had not allowed myself to push through it, instead chosing the appropriate gear to keep my cadence high so not to ruin my legs for the run. The run. I still had more than two hours of running to do after this. Now is not a good time to think about that! Just get yourself home as efficiently as possible and worry about that then. These were just some of the thoughts going through my head after turning out of the wind before reaching the really fast section.
I am so thankful that the fastest section of the course was homeward bound. I forgot all the pain and anguish of the middle section of that last loop by the time I saw my family again, as well as my friends who had also arrived by this time, as I came into T2. I know the thought of the run would have been so much harder had I finished the bike feeling the way I did through that rough patch. I still struggled to control the bike as I turned into Sandy Balls and although I unclipped one foot to be able to stop, the other one had already switched off and how I got off the bike without it landing in a heap on top of me I will never know. I clocked the total bike time, including the walk out of the first transition at 3:55 which meant I was off the bike before midday.
It was in this transition that I learned we had started 7 minutes late, which meant that getting off the bike at 11:55 was nearer to the 11:45 mid range target that I was aiming for. I was then able to adjust my timings to know that unless I could run a sub 2 hour half marathon I wasn’t going to get my dream finishing time. I would struggle to do a sub 2 hour half marathon in a flat road race so it was certainly not going to happen at the end of a 54 mile bike ride, let alone with those hills that awaited me. But then I already knew that back on the bike. My focus had now shifted to my next target which would have needed a 2 hour 20 minute half marathon. I could do that, I knew I could do that. The run is my strongest part of a triathlon and I have proved that the further I run the stronger I am. Running is what I do best so this is where I would excel.
Except I had completely underestimated how hard that run would be. Not just after having already been racing for nearly 5 hours but because the course was brutal. I had done this part in training as well but the first time I was only four weeks back into running after my injury earlier in the year so had to restrict it to 6 miles and my legs were still run fresh from having spent most of the previous four months not running at all. The second was about a month before the race and I was in a bad place with my training and my Achilles was playing up so I only managed about 1.5 miles before it was sensible to turn back rather than risk making it worse so close to the race. So whilst I knew there were a few nasty hills in there, I was unprepared for how the overall course would take its toll.
I was expecting the first mile to be tough, the first couple of miles off the bike are always the hardest while the legs are adjusting to what they are now being asked to do. It’s funny to think that given my background I would say that, anatomically, running after cycling is the worst thing you can do. You sit scrunched up on a bike for hours and then ask your body to function by using these same muscles in the complete opposite way with very little warning! Yet, for me, it is this that gives triathlon that edge of accomplishment over ‘just’ running.
However, having said that, I wasn’t thinking about the accomplishment as I was leaving the second transition area, I was thinking that the relatively small gradient ahead of me felt like a mountain. Well actually that is not entirely true. As I was taking what felt like about 10 minutes in transition I was thinking about seeing my friends and family again. They were amazing. I have done races before where my family and other people from the club have been there to support me and it has been wonderful to have them share that moment with me. This was different. Even by this point I was physically exhausted so it was such a huge lift to see them yelling and cheering for me with their banners.
I ran up the road and was adamant I wasn’t going to walk until I was out of sight – I don’t actually know where this point was or whether I managed this but it certainly wasn’t long before I was walking. Man, this was so hard! I passed Keith’s wife a bit further up from my family when I muttered something along the lines of ‘your husband has a lot to answer for’. Which is funny because last year Keith did this race for the first time and a few of us went down to support him and it was at this point in his race when he ran past us and said ‘don’t ever do a triathlon’. I fear we will never learn.
The run was hard. So hard. But I really enjoyed it. I don’t think I ran for more than about half a mile in one go before I had to stop to walk up a hill. I stopped at every drink station to refuel and had a little chat with the marshals. They had been out there for hours and were still as cheerful as I imagined they would have been at the beginning of the day. I passed Dave on his way back before I had even done 2 miles I think. Then Keith a few miles later. We were both running downhill at the time so probably looked better than we actually felt but it was good to see him. Martyn was next and then Amna. After that I passed a few other competitors coming back who said that the half way point wasn’t far away now.
And then a few more said the same. And a few more. And more still. People really need to define ‘not far’! Then the last person I passed heading back said it was just at the bottom of the hill. My first thought was, you are kidding me. So I have to start my journey back up a bloody hill! But he was right, it was down the bottom of the hill – a big one at that. To be fair they were all big hills in that race so I don’t know why I was surprised. I reached half way after 1 hour and 19 minutes of starting the run.
Even in my rather exhausted state I managed work out that double that would get me in with a 2:38 half marathon. This translated to real time would have been a race time of over 7.5 hours but I had wanted to finish under this time. Even though the run was proving so much harder than I had imagined, I knew I would not be happy finishing in over 7.5 hours so I had to give myself a bit of a talking to. I knew what I had to do because I had just done it, albeit in the opposite direction. I knew my run was stronger in the second half. And I knew I had to do a negative split on this run to achieve my goal.
This spurred me on to push for home. I was able to visualise my check points better on the way back and it actually wasn’t long before I was at the last (or first) water station again. I took the time to refuel properly and get a refill in my own water bottle as although I was only about 3-4 miles from home, it was hot and not sheltered and I was tired. I reached the point that I knew well from training and knew I was only just over two miles from home. I pushed on, running up the lesser inclines and walking fast up the steeper ones. And then I saw the road. I nearly cried. I was about a mile and a half from home. I couldn’t work out what my average pace was because I was run/walking so much so I couldn’t translate this into whether I was within negative split time so I reverted to the clock. The last stretch was downhill so I had this – I could run downhill.
The last bit was downhill but I couldn’t run it. I was about half a mile from home and I had to walk, downhill. That was how hard this race was – I couldn’t even run the last half a mile downhill. I got to a very energetic marshal who said I was about half a kilometre from the finish but even knowing I was only about 3 minutes from home I still struggled to keep running. Up ahead I could see some people going a bit crazy, waving frantically and making lots of noise. I thought they were the marshals at the entrance to Sandy Balls – where the finish was. But it wasn’t. It was my sisters! They were going nuts! The ran to meet me and just kept clapping and saying how awesome I was! Claire asked me how I was feeling and I just replied ‘I am going to get this sub 7.5 hour if it kills me’. ‘Let’s go!’ she said. And they ran back down the road with me. I picked up the pace and they yelled at me to keep going as they let me go. I turned the corner and ran as hard as I could to the finish.
Everyone was waiting for me and they were all shouting and cheering and screaming at me – I had done it and in a time of 7:29:37! I had expected tears but I was too tired to even cry. I just stood for a moment not really knowing what to do while someone put a medal round my neck. Some of my family hugged me over the flower beds but even this was too hard to keep my balance. Keith came round to meet me and gave me the biggest hug. In fact the only hug he has ever given me. He once said he only does hugs when someone does something really special. I still can’t explain how I felt when I finished but I think this photo beautifully sums it up.
They and my family will never know just how much it meant to me for them to share that day with me. It was by far THE hardest thing I have ever done and I still don’t think the enormity of what I have achieved has really sunk in. What I do know is that I have reached my limit of what I can do right now. I am sure I will attempt a full iron-distance triathlon at some point but whilst I can probably swim the full distance and I know I can run a marathon, I can’t physically cycle any further than 60 miles at the moment.
I have a 50k race in December which is ‘just’ running and then after that I will be doing no more than half marathon run races and will not be attempting anything more than an Olympic distance triathlon for the next twelve months. Although I have achieved some amazing things this year, I have had as many lows and I will freely admit that this race took a lot more out of me than I had thought it would so my plan is to work on my speed and build on that to focus on another marathon in early 2017.
But for now, all that is really left to do is thank everyone for their support this year and an extra special thanks to the amazing people that came to support that race, you really have no idea how much easier you made it for me.