Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Ironman Kona 2017

What can I say....

I’m a dyed in the wool Hawaii Ironman fan boy. Or should that be dyed in Lycra?

I can’t help it. I just love the place and the race that is held on Hawaii’s big island each October.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it was all that grainy Trans World Sport coverage I was glued to during my early, formative triathlon years. Maybe it’s the beauty / harshness of the island, it’s landscapes and it’s wildlife or maybe it was watching way too much “Magnum PI” as a kid (I still want a Ferrari 308).

Whatever the reason. I have an affinity with the place and I just feel at peace when I’m there. Oddly I don’t feel the same pressure or stress I feel at other races during the season. Racing is stressful if we want to do well, make times and beat people. The stress is a direct result of the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve a certain outcome. We get stressed because the result matters. And often, it matters beyond anything else.

Throughout the racing season, for many (myself included) goals are painfully tangible. We might want to finish on the podium. Go sub (pick a time). Or just stick it to (pick a person).

For me, my goal was clear. I wanted to qualify for Kona so I could race alongside my wife Claire who had qualified the previous year in Tenby.

Goals like these are binary. You reach them or you don’t.

Reach your goals and everything seems worth it. Don’t and the disappointment can make you question your life choices. I’ve fallen on both sides this year.

But take those extrinsic goals away and you’re left with all the other stuff that’s far less tangible. Stuff like “enjoyment”, “pleasure”, “fun”.

Remember that?

It’s so easy to get tangled up in the process of performing that the other stuff gets squeezed out or at best, marginalised. And that’s a shame. A waste.

So when I’m in Kona, for me, is different. If I’ve made it... then I’ve made it. My main goal for the season has been achieved. The rest is all gravy. Kona has always been about making it for me.

That may sound like a cop out. It’s the “World Champs” after all. Shouldn’t I be targetting a certain position or going after a fruit bowl?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In classic management speak, goals should be S.M.A.R.T. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. The same can apply to sporting / athletic goals.

Attainable... This is key.

I’m under no illusions. Qualifying for Kona sits at the periphery of my ability. Bagging a fruit bowl I think goes beyond it. Or at least beyond it based on my own personal level of natural ability, training and sacrifice. For the most part, hard graft is rewarded in Ironman and I know there will always be people who are prepared to train way harder than I do and sacrifice way more. Good on them. They deserve the spoils of victory.

As the saying goes... You can’t complain about the results you didn’t get because of the work you didn’t do.

No, I know my place. And without wishing to sound too self-deprecating, in Kona I’m kinda making up the numbers. I’m cool with that. These are the best Age-Group athletes in the world after all. Getting stressed and missing out on everything the island has to offer seems like a sacrifice too far for someone just hoping to make a good fist of it.

Accepting this is actually quite liberating. I can take pride in making the Kona grade (someting which thankfully, for most, is still quite tough). But then race for the intrinsic rewards of tackling the Kona course and conditions without the stress of direct competition for places or prizes.

Ok, so it does sound a bit like a cop out. But that’s the choice I’ve made.

After all, for Claire and I, this is still a hobby. Spending thousands of pounds, travelling half way around the world and pinning everything on a certain outcome would be a huge wasted opportunity. Particularly for a race like Kona where one’s performance often feels like it’s in the lap of the island gods.

No, we go to Kona to “smell the roses”.

And to swim with dolphins, meet turtles, party with friends and dance in the rain...

True to that ideal... the two weeks before this year’s race were treated very much as a holiday (with a little bit of training thrown in). We were shacked up in a beautiful condo set in the foothills above the Queen K. Sharing our Hawaiian digs with good friends Mark and Caroline Livesey and their American pals Devon and Curtiss. Mark and Curtiss were also racing and Caroline and Devon would form our cheer squad on race day.

I have to applaud Curtiss and Devon. They were such amenable house guests with the sort of chilled out, easy going personalities that made them a pleasure to be around during the race build-up. They soaked up Mark’s relentless piss-taking with aplomb. As such, the condo was always full of laughter.... And some shockingly poor attempts at the English accent.

But this is is a race report, not a holiday review, so I’ll fast forward to race day....

Race morning 3:30 am, the condo seemed pretty chilled and everyone was in good spirits. If anyone was nervous, they were hiding it well. I for one felt incredibly calm and was just looking forward to testing myself. I’d slept soundly and had a good breakfast.

Caroline drove us down to the King Kam hotel near the pier and we all headed off to make our way through the processes of “special needs” bag dropping, body marking, weighing and bike checking. All went off quickly and seamlessly thanks to the army of Ironman volunteers.

The skies were still dark but ominously clear. It looked like we might be in for hot one. The atmosphere was relaxed and the preparation area was packed with athletes going about their pre-race rituals by traditional flaming torch light. High fives, hugs, laughter (and some tears) abound.

We met up with Paul (Lunny) and fellow Brit Jamie Allen. The ubiquitous banter / piss taking kicked off and everyone seemed at ease.

It wasn’t long before the famous cannon boomed out over the still air, sending the pro males off on their way. It also served as our 30 minute warning so I issued a few man hugs (and a smooch for Claire) and made my way through the hectic transition area and down the famous steps into the warm waters off Dig-Me beach. Ok... So now I had a few nerves.

With 15 minutes until go time, I started swimming out to the start line a few 100 meters off shore. I opted once again for a start spot on the extreme left. In 2015 this afforded me good opportunity to find clear water if I felt the need.

After 10 minutes of treading water – it was time to get my game face on. I allowed myself a few seconds of reflection on my season and what it had taken me to get here. The lump that started forming in my throat was quickly quelled by the sound of the cannon shot and the instant transformation of the still clear water around me into a boiling mass of arms and legs.

I started “swimming” much like a man who had been thrown off a boat into Class 5 white water. The melee continued for about 200m until I felt space starting to form around me. I LOVE swimming without a wet-suit. I find it so liberating and even the usual argy-bargy of an open water swim start didn’t phase me. This was great, I had clear(ish) water and I was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm, unencumbered by other swimmers. On occasion I felt I was drifting a little wide of the buoys, but it afforded me a clear swim and I knew that it would have marginal affect on my yardage, providing I aimed in a generally straight direction.

After an uneventful opening 2k leg, the turn boat was rounded in a bit of a scrum and I was soon heading back to shore in a noticeably increasing swell.

The return leg did drag but I felt like I was fading less than those around me. I was able to move from pack to pack making use of the draft when I could. Things got a little hectic as we neared the pier with swimmers jostling for position at the narrow exit steps.

I made the pier in just over 1:05. A little slower than other swims for me this year, but with no wetsuit, the swell and 4k showing on my Garmin, I was happy that my time represented a solid swim by my standards.

T1 at the Kona Pier is a fairly lengthy processes. A sprint through the the showers, grab the bike bag and then into the carnage of the change tent. Shoes and helmet were on my bike so my bag was empty, save for my white cooling arm sleeves. I stashed my swim gear, handed off my bag and began running through transition, donning my sleeves as I went. I arrived at my bike good to go.

Helmet on, bike yanked from it’s stand and I was off in a little over 3 minutes from swim exit.

It was now around 8:15 and the air was already warm and the wind not particularly strong. There was no doubt now that we were in for a hot day as I headed up the out and back on the Kuakini Highway. My legs felt amazing and race power seemed easy. I had to work hard to keep myself reined in and not get carried away with the streams of over-eager riders shooting by.

As I headed back into town I was passed by a flying Lunny. He looked to be pushing on and was hoovering up competitors in front of him. I hoped he knew what he was doing!

Once onto the Queen K I was able to get stuck into the meat of the bike course. Race pace of 230 watts was yielding 25-28mph – this was going to be fast.

The temperature seemed to be rising by the minute and by the first aid station I was feeling the urgent need to start getting on top of my body temp. I grabbed a bottle and emptied it over my arms, back and inside my helmet. It was blissfully cool. I had to be vigilant as I knew the affect that excessive heat could have on my power output. The feed station “shower” would become an essential ritual every 20 miles or so.

I’m pleased to report that the riders around me were all respecting the draft rules. Yes there were one or two who maybe stayed “in the zone” a little longer than allowed, but making clean overtakes of multiple riders was proving pretty hard due to the high cruising speeds.

But the huge draft packs I was in fear off before the race were not in evidence. Not around me at least. There may have been some up the road and I get how that would tick off any “wet runner” aiming for a podium. But they weren’t affecting my race against the course and that’s all I cared about.

For a big chunk of the bike leg I found myself in the presence of fellow Brit Scott Whittlestone. I owed Scott a debt of gratitude as it was him not taking his Kona spot at Bolton (having already qualified) that threw me my qualification life line. I knew Scott and I swam and biked in the same ballpark at Bolton so figured he’d be a useful barometer of my effort.

We chopped and changed the lead which helped ease the tedium of the largely featureless Queen K section.

At the Kawaihai turn, power was still feeling great. Again I tried to moderate my effort. I was still well under half way and it was way too early for over-confidence – particularity as I’d face less favourable winds on the return leg.

As I started swinging east onto the climb to Hawi, the wind had really strengthened. Combined with the gradient, my speed was now diminishing fast. For the first time, the effort was starting to tell.

A few miles from the turn I spotted Mark heading for home. I estimated he had a good 5 miles on me and was looking good. Mark was in great shape and was here to race hard. It looked like things were going his way.

Next I spotted young Brit Alex Bradley. Sadly on the side of the road with his bike in an alarming number of pieces. Alex is a prodigious talent (sub 9) but has been dogged with bad luck this year. I felt gutted to see him on the side of the road. I hope he can look back with relief (and a healing broken wrist) that his handle bars had parted company with his bike on the 15mph climb UP to Hawi, not the 40mph + decent back DOWN. I know Alex will come back to nail Kona.

I rounded the Hawi turn myself and spun down to the special needs station where I had two fresh bottles waiting for me. I had frozen these overnight and they were still wonderfully cold as I slotted them into my rear cages. The marshals at Kona are so experienced. The whole process took maybe 10 seconds – as opposed to the several minutes I spent hunting for my bottles at Bolton!

I now had the glorious wind assisted descent back towards Kawaihai. As I hurtled along in the blustery conditions, I felt thankful for my wheel choice. I shot past other athletes wrestling with their bikes in the cross winds.

From Kawaihai to the Queen K turn off, things started getting tough. The air is so still here, it’s like being in an oven. I was in between aid stations and my temperature was escalating. Turning back onto the Queen K, the hot wind made it’s presence felt again – this time as a head / cross wind.

I experienced my usual mid ride slump. I wasn’t too concerned, it often happens and if I focus on holding my position and fuelling regularly I’m confident of coming out the other side unscathed. And so proved to be the case as I soon felt some power returned to my legs.

Race effort was still feeling significantly harder now but I was moving ok and passing plenty of fading riders. Glancing at my clock it looked like a 5:10 ride was on the cards. This would be around 10 minutes quicker than 2015, when I’d run a solid 3:30 marathon. If I could repeat that run off the quicker bike, then a sub 10 could be on the cards.

I remained steadfast and kept my power where it needed to be. I knew biking too hard in the last hour could derail my marathon. Passing more riders bolstered my confidence, but maybe tempted me into burning a match or two. It wasn’t long before I was descending Makala Boulevard back towards the pier as a hot and sweaty mess.

Feet out of shoes and a rather inelegant dismount saw me hand off my bike to a waiting volunteer with bike shoes flying in all directions! Two other volunteers scurried to collect them.

T2 starts with a lengthy run around the perimeter of transition. Man it was hot! I desperately needed the shade of the change tent. Everything ached.

I grabbed my run bag and slumped down in a chair. Another volunteer ran to my aid, providing me with cold Gatorade. Transition was fairly brisk and I was quickly heading out of the tent and part way up Palani Rd before turning onto Kuakini and then down onto Alii Drive to start the 5 mile slog to the first turnaround.

In the distance I saw buddy and serial “pro-botherer” Brian Fogarty reduced to a walk. My heart sank a little as I knew just how badly Foggi wanted a result in Kona. I asked if he was ok and instantly thought “what a stupid fucking question”. Foggi should have been an hour up the road so it was safe to assume he was pretty far from “OK”. Kona had dealt another cruel blow to a monumental talent. I hoped Foggi can take huge positives from an amazing season.

The heat was now overwhelmingly oppressive and I knew I had to get things under control. The first water / ice station seemed to take an eternity! Eventually I saw it in the distance and knew I needed to take some time to cool myself. I loaded up my scarf with ice, put a handful under my hat and doused my arms and body in cold water....

I squelched off down the road. That was better. I felt my run could start now.

Glancing at my watch I could see I was comfortably up on my pace from 2015. No heroics required. I just needed to equal my 3:30 run split from 2015 and I’d have a huge Kona PB.

I trotted on happy at my 7:30 mile pace. “This feels good - I can cope with this” I thought.

I settled into a rhythm of running between aid stations but I was having to spend 10-15 seconds refuelling, cooling off and repacking ice wherever I could! I had to do this. Whatever happened, I couldn’t allow my temperature to escalate.

The heat seemed every bit as tough as it was in 2015. I looked enviously at the athletes running back to town. I clocked Charlie Pennington at a similar place to 2015 and we exchanged a high five. I felt little power boost. It didn’t last long.

I finally reached the turn and started the return leg to Kailua-Kona. Just moving forward was now taking considerable effort. Waves of strength were followed by waves of crippling weakness. I’d only run 5 miles. How the hell was I going to run another 21 and change. I didn’t remember feeling this bad, this soon in 2015. Bugger.

The demons started goading me.

“5 miles in and you’re already suffering like a dog!”...“This is too much, you’ll never get through this”... “Why don’t you just walk for a bit or have a little sit down”

I retaliated with the best positive self talk I could muster. “It’ll be cooler on the Queen K”... “You ran really well there in 2015”... “Everyone else is suffering”...

It helped a bit. But not much if I’m honest. This was purgatory.

Heading back to town I started seeing some of the faster female Age-Groupers heading out. They’d started 20 minutes or so behind the men. Ali Rowatt, Ruth Purbrook, Elaine Garvican and Jane Hansom all seemed to be hauling. I tried some simple mental arithmetic to work out the likely time gaps, but the sums were beyond my addled brain.

My mile pace suffered on the few rises back into town – I felt like I was creeping along. I searched out any spectator armed with a water hose.

Back in Kailua-Kona I felt the energy from the crowds lift me a little – I even managed to stay running up Palani Road – of a fashion.

The cooler conditions I’d promised myself earlier didn’t materialise. I felt cheated. I wasn’t even half-way through the run and things didn’t look like they were going to get any easier any time soon. The sun was still high in a cloudless sky and it was roasting me.

Running in these conditions is utterly bonkers and it’s pretty hard to describe. I consider myself an ok runner with ok times to my name... but crawling along the Queen K you wouldn’t believe it. Maybe it was the fatigue from a long season. Maybe it was a simple intolerance to the inhumane heat and humidity. Whatever the reason I knew for sure I didn’t have my 2015 run legs and this was going to be a survival slog.

This is the ultimate cruelty of Kona.... I’ve spent all year training hard.... REALLY hard. I’ve sweated hell on my Wattbike and knocked out some killer track sessions and tempo runs. I’d tapered well, played it cautiously on the bike and yet here I was on the Queen K trying desperately to avoid 10 minute miles. There is no rhyme or reason and it was proving a tough pill to swallow.

Any time goals had now evaporated. My aim was now to just keep running. If nothing else, it meant I’d reach the salvation of each aid station before I blew a gasket.

I tried disassociating myself from my torment – I pulled my sun hat down and tried to shut everything out. I just had to focus on moving forward. In the distance I spied Declan from team Freespeed. A hugely experienced Kona athlete. It lifted me from my self-pity. Right Dunc... Pull yourself together. You’re catching Dec... Go get him! A clear case of my reach exceeding my grasp.

At some points I did seem to be clawing my way back to Dec, I was still having to walk every aid station, to get my temperature back under control, while my Freespeed “carrot” was able to run though to re-open and then extend his gap.

I spotted Charlie running for home in the opposite direction. Another high five. Another, even shorter lived, power boost.

Soon after I saw Lunny! Wow he was crushing his first Kona (and would go on to finish 5th AG). Hugely impressive. I was so chuffed for him.

Curtiss a few moments later also looking solid.

My frustrating yo-yo with Dec continued for about 3 miles before the solar panels of the Natural Energy finally came into view. It’s funny how this section of the course fills so many people with dread. But I relish it. There’s normally a breeze here and once back out it’s a mere 10k home. It marks a significant physical and mental turning point in the course for me. If I’ve made it this far. I know I can run it in.

It was clear now that I wasn’t making any in-roads on Dec. He had things nicely under control. I didn’t.

Entering the 4 mile Energy Lab out and back I spotted Mark heading back. He gave me a big cheer. He looked to be having fun but was not as far ahead as I had anticipated. I guessed his day wasn’t going quite to plan. I later learned that he’d punctured on the bike and stomach cramps had scuppered the run he needed and wanted. I really felt for Mark, but that’s Kona. You can be in the shape of your life and the race can still kick you square in the arse. Kona can be cruel and sometimes it really doesn’t care how hard you’ve trainied.

The run into the Natural Energy lab descends to the coast. The running is easier and the heat was no worse. I could take that.

An aid station pumped out music at an uncomfortably loud volume. It wasn’t what I needed. I was happier suffering in silence.

Making the turn, I would soon be heading back along the Queen K. The same shallow rise that I’d clipped up at 6:30 mile pace in training now felt like a wall of tarmac at 9:00 mile pace! But once onto the highway I knew the bulk of the work was done.

Just 6 more aid stations to tick of. I started visualising the finish line the feeling of not having to run any more.

I slogged on counting down the miles.

About 3 miles from home, I ran onto the shoulder of John Mead. Another Brit and in my Age-Group. We were both pretty well spent. Like two dying embers in a fire. I pressed on but again the heat was to be my limiter and forced me to stop and “ice up” at the two remaining aid stations, John was able to jog through and retake his lead.

The decent back down Palani was crippling. Pain shot through my joints as I tried to control my momentum. The final 400m along Alii drive was, by contrast, a joy. It filled me with an energy that’s impossible to describe. I was in no rush though. I soaked it all in and savoured the moment before crossing the line in blissful relief.


49th out of 293 in my AG.

Looking at the results I could take solace in a higher AG placing than 2015. And was happy to have turned the tables on many of my Age-Group who had out-qualified me at both Lanzarote and Bolton. It was also clear from the results how many “melt down’s” there had been on the run. It had been a tough day for sure and something which served to underline how impressive many of the top Age-Group run spits were.

My second time in Kona bought home a reality for me. Unless I can come out to Kona and acclimatise for 6 months, I think I’ll always struggle to perform at the level I train to. And that’s frustrating. The heat and humidity mean for me, on race day, all bets are off. Looking more positively, I’ve had two “OK” races at Kona and no catastrophic system failures, no doubt due to my cautious approach to the race. On balance, l think I’ll take that.

But when all is said and done, Kona is so much more than “just another Ironman”. It’s the sun around which the Ironman planets orbit. Enjoying everything this beautiful island has to offer, sharing it with Claire and so many brilliant / talented friends, rubbing shoulders and partying (a little too hard) with pros and amateurs alike is something totally unique in the sport.

If I’m honest there ARE better races than Ironman Kona...

But there are a few experiences that even come close.

A few shout outs....

Thanks to my team Race Hub.

Team boss Johnny and all the members of Race Hub Tri Club are so incredibly supportive. We have something truly special and unique.

All our amazing team sponsors

Skechers Performance, Huub, Giant Bikes, C.E.P Compression, High 5, Snow Software, Lake Cycling, Vittoria tyres

Others who have helped me along the way. Parcours Wheels, Wattbike

All of team GB, the amazing Umeke winners, but particularity my awesome condo mates Caroline, Mark and honorary Brits Devon and Curtiss.

And lastly my beautiful wife Claire who finished her 3rd Kona Ironman in impressive style with a run split only a few minutes short of mine! Incredible. I never forget how lucky I am to be able to share my crazy addiction with the one I love.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Into the Fresh Air - Breca Buttermere 2017

It was a race I had been looking forward to all year. A chance to break from the stress and pressure of Ironman racing. A chance to get back to basics and just spend an epic day swimming and running with a mate. Some much needed physical and metaphorical fresh air.

No stress, no expectation, just a great adventure with wifey and some pals

The Breca Buttremere swim run has all I love about sport. A challenging course, beautiful landscapes, breathtaking vistas, a slightly “out there” vibe (running in a wetsuit for goodness sake) and camaraderie by the bucket load.

An impromptu change to my racing calendar would mean that I’d have to toe the line a mere two weeks after completing Ironman UK, my second Ironman event of the year. My race partner Paul “Lunny” Lunn would have an extra week’s recovery on me, having completed Ironman Frankfurt a whole 3 weeks before the start. Slacker.

So while we weren’t the most sprightly pair of competitors on the eve of the event, we vowed to make the most of it and to simply enjoy the day. Certainly, with 38k of knarly fell running and 6k of lake swimming, split over 19 different sections, we were sure to get our “enjoyment” fix.

Lunny and I before departure to the start

Talking tactics in our campsite before race day phrases like “starting steady” and “keeping our powder dry” were offered up with approving nods and copious amounts of tea.

But when you find yourself in 3rd place after the first run section... the red mist has a tendency to descend and the racing inevitably starts!

Who’d have guessed.

Rewind to the start where 100+ neoprene clad pairs gathered in the tipping rain having been driven, by coach, to the start of the new and improved “point to point” course. The route would see us run and swim generally East from our starting point West of Loweswater, linking 3 further lakes (Crummock, Buttermere, Derwent) with a series of fell running sections ranging from 0.3 – 14.5 Kilometers. We’d end up several hours later in Keswick. Thankfully, all the best bits of the 2016 race remained. It was an epic route that organiser Ben had worked tirelessly to secure.

For the race, Paul and I were joined by Claire and her partner Kat. Some weeks before, we had all ventured up to the Lakes for a reccy weekend with Rob Green at the Triathlon Hideaway. But for Rob, Claire and Kat, Brecca Buttermere would be their first official event. The bewildered expressions looked familiar. Paul and I were in the same position last year. Of course we were now both “seasoned pros” having completed a whole “one” Swimrun event before.

Our advice to the newbies was summed up thus.....

Running in a wetsuit kinda sucks...

Swimming in trainers also kinda sucks...

When you’re running, you’ll wish you were swimming...

And when you’re swimming, you’ll wish you were running...

But you are going to absolutely LOVE it!

Before long we were off and it was less than 500 meters before we met our first navigational challenge. A farm gate.

At the sharp end from the off

Reaching the gate in 3rd or 4th we headed straight on, confident in our route choice, only to see the competitors behind us dart left through a gap in the wall. When the teams in front of us decided to follow suit we also had a crisis of confidence and decided to back-track. Confusion ensued before we realised that we’d had it right the first time!

Once back on course we found ourselves in 7th place and happy to settle in to the remains of the opening 4k fell section.

By the time we arrived at Loweswater for the first swim, I was ready for cooling dip. We had both kept our wetsuits fully zipped, swim hats and hand paddles on so were able to rapidly transition to swimming.

7th to 3rd in a heartbeat – boom!

My shoulders felt a little heavy – it would take a while for them to warm up. The first swim was relatively sheltered and, at only 400m, quickly despatched.

Still in 3rd we begun a fast 5k section which featured a number of rolling county lanes. Paul and I were in our element. Lunny was pushing the pace, eager to consolidate our position. I was happy to sit in behind.

“Easy start my arse” I chuckled.

hanging in there

We made ourselves ready as we approached the next swim, a 1k smash across the widest part of Crummock Water, the longest swim of the event. Once away from the shore the conditions became quite challenging. Squall had whipped up waves around us which came crashing over our heads. The rain was being blown on the wind and hitting us sideways like the intermittent spray from large motor boat.

We stayed close together – our swim speed perfectly matched.

This was a crazy stuff but I was loving the challenge that the elements offered.

Crummock delivered some challenging conditions

By halfway we had been passed by the 4th place team who were clearly incredibly strong in the water. They were thriving in the tough conditions and went on to build a decent lead over the 1k leg.

Next up a 2k stretch along the lake. The path was a narrow roller-coaster affair, strewn with boulders, which proved difficult to negotiate, particularly while my head was still spinning from the icy dip we had just completed.

Back into Crummock for 500m and 3rd place were still visible in the distance. We were familiar with the run section which followed and knew it featured an opportunity for us to get back on terms - a tough climb up to the Rannerdale knots.

great views from Rannerdale

As we made our way onto the next run section we were greeted by Kat’s partner Mike, who was supporting for the day. He seemed a little surprised to see us in 4th given that we were “not taking it very seriously”. Yeah right!

A quick refuel and we began the first tough climb. Our familiarity with this leg paid dividends as we were able to steal a march on the team ahead to move back into 3rd place.

keeping fuelled is very important

Over the top and the steep slippery descent that followed showed our weakness. I took several hard tumbles on the greasy pitch and we finished the section back in 4th place, and me with a heavily bloodied right arm and dented ego.

A third dip in Crummock (800m) and our nemeses in 3rd extended their lead with another impressive swim.

The run leg that followed was only short at 2.3k but my head was spinning and I was now struggling to make Lunny’s pace. He was definitely in the groove now and bounding smoothly over the tough, rock littered terrain.

Lunny pushing hard

I popped a caffeine gel and shook my head to try and regain some focus. I knew from bitter experience that I had to keep the fuel going down consistently throughout the day.

We were soon at Buttermere for a lovely 500m swim in it’s calmer crystal clear waters, followed by a high speed dash along the rolling lake shore. Back in for 300m, running for 2k, followed by another 400m – the very essence of swim run. I was feeling much better as we reached the Dalegarth Guest house where we were able to take advantage of another fuel stop.

Tough going - but gonna get tougher

So if the race so far had been the “Starter” and “Amuse Bouche”, what followed next was the certainly the main course...

14.5 kilometers from the flanks of Buttermere, over the Peaks of Robinson, Dale Head and High Spy before a white knuckle descent to Derwent water. An accumulated altitude gain of 1200m.

Less altitude is gained running up Snowdon.

The first mile of this section is allegedly the steepest in all of Swimrun. And as my Garmin showed just over 30 minutes as it beeped to signal the mile split... I could well believe it!

Too steep for any team to run, a death march is really as good as it gets. At it’s worst we were using the field boundary fence as a banister to pull us ever skywards.

The ridge line from Robinson to Dale Head included a number of cruel rocky descents and numerous false summits before a final killer quad busting drop to the Dale Head Tarn. It was on these technical downhill sections that our lack of fell running skill (and recent Ironman fatigue) became abundantly clear. We had to concede 3 places here and there was precious little we could do about it without risking life and limb.

The only positive was that Paul and I were now equally shagged. I was able to push the pace on the climbs and Paul took the baton on the descents.

The final climb of High Spy gave way to a glorious view of Derwent Water. The final 4 sections of the race, and the finish line itself in Crow Park, stretched out into the distance. The descent was now soft underfoot and within the limits of our limited technical ability and dwindling strength. We pushed on at a solid pace to the penultimate swim, a 600m halfway crossing of Derwent Water to St Herberts Island.

As we ran toward the shore we saw the team we had been vying with all day in the distance. Lunny’s pace visibly increased – he just can’t help himself! We knew that their swimming ability would see them distance themselves once again, but there was honour at stake and we passed them as we entered the water. As suspected, they quickly passed us again but it was motivating to know that we were still in close quarter with the top teams.

The water was a welcome relief as our temperatures had risen significantly during the last run. A welcome relief soon became chilly and so I pressed on in an attempt to keep warm. Unbeknown to me, I’d distanced myself from Lunny during the crossing and arrived on St Herbert’s Island in a panic with no sign of my partner. Believing Paul to be ahead I dashed off into the dense, wooded interior of the island. Arriving on the other side with still no sign of Paul! Shit!

Seconds later Lunny arrived behind me, having wondered why I had decided to try and drop him during the island dash! Soz mate!

We were in the finishing straight now – “dessert” if you will. But the kind of dessert you face when you’ve already made a pig of yourself during your main course. Like a massive piece of sticky toffee pudding...

With syrup.

It was a toughy. A 900m choppy struggle before a 1k dash to the finish-line. The wind had churned the water into draining swell. White horses... The full works. Waves seemed to be crashing over our heads and then pulling us back from our direction of travel. The exit flag was all but invisible in the distance and with no intermediate markers we just got our heads down and battled on.

After what seemed like an eternity, the exit beach finally came into view but took many more minutes to reach. At long last we tentatively pulled ourselves onto the shore, our sea legs struggling to function as supports. The effort from the long 14.5 run leg followed by a 1500m “ice bath” had rendered them useless.

toughest swim saved until the end

We hobbled along the pebbly shore, heads spinning and legs complaining from the cold.

We slowly coerced our limbs back into action and managed to regain some semblance of running just in time to receive the applause from the many bemused tourists gathered around Crow Park. A final left turn and we were into the finish chute.

into the finish cute

We crossed the line in 6hrs 18 minutes and 7th place.

The gaps behind us were quite large, but we would only have to cheer another 2 teams before Claire and Kat sprinted into view in 10th overall and 1st place in the women’s race. A total time of 6hrs 59 minutes and 17 minutes clear of the next female pairing. An incredible debut performance.

awesome performance from Claire and Kat

Rob and partner Ben were going great guns and were still on terms with Claire and Kat at the end of the Dale Head leg. The last two swim stints had tested their mettle to see them finish in 22nd place.

The finish line had a wonderful carnival atmosphere. Tunes and laughter filled the air. Before long there were a steady stream of teams finishing. Every pair crossing the line with the kind of smiles that only swim run can produce.

Finishers were able to soak up the sun, enjoy hot soup and share war stories. I’m not sure you experience this strange combination of exhaustion, happiness and contentment in any other branch of multi-sport. It’s quite wonderful.

They say a problem shared is a problem halved.

I think it’s fair to say an experienced shared is an experienced doubled.

tired but happy

Race organiser Ben de Rivas, his team, the volunteers and Breca Buttermere Swimrun delivered again. Lunny was as dependable (and competitive) as ever. Like I expected anything less. I can’t think of a better person to spend 6 hours swimming and running with.

Fancy another “steady” one next year mate?


Both Paul and I used the Huub Amphibia Swimrun Wetsuit. They performed perfectly over the challenging course offering plenty of ventilation and zero chaffing, swimming or running.


We opted for Inov-8 X-Talon 190 – Great shoes. Light grippy and quick draining.


A Huub Swim Buoy went some way to offsetting the extra drag from the shoes.

We also both used hand paddles – I’m still undecided on this. For me I think I’m marginally quicker, but they are quite fatiguing over 6k of swimming. Practice in training is a must for any would be Swimrunner.

I used a “Flip-Belt” to carry nutrition – A great bit of kit for anyone struggling for a solution to carrying keys, phones or nutrition when training – check them out!


Photo credit

Massive big up to all the hardy professional photographers out on the course. As an entrant you get free access to literally 100's of the most creative race photos you will ever see. Puts other races to shame. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Kona Qually Take 2...... Ironman Bolton

Anyone who knows me would have told you...

They’d have told you “Bollocks”...

Bollocks that I’d “leave my 2017 Kona campaign at just one race if things didn’t work out at Lanzarote”.

None of my friends actually said it... Ok a few did, but they all knew it.

And they were right.

Much as it was genuinely my intention to NOT wind up chasing Kona Qualification all year long, I couldn’t leave it after just one near miss. I had to give it “just one more” roll of the dice. Back on the horse and all that jazz.

It’s the classic behaviour of any addict.

Ironman UK seemed the obvious choice. It still had entries and I could do it with minimal time off work and less expense than another overseas trip.

A quick consult with coach and I had the green light and a plan. Recovery and then maintenance of my current fitness was the goal. No heroics needed.

I had a few other races to squeeze in, all with the intention of keeping me sharp. Some time trials, a local Oly and a bike leg in a 70.3 relay offered me some low stress fun with my race team “Race Hub”.

I’d scheduled in a few key training sessions as well.

I ventured up north the accept the kind offer of a guided tour of the bike course by the king of Bolton himself Brian “Foggi” Fogarty. Man that guy can ride a bike. Something every single Pro athlete would discover on race day!

We had a weekend of running in mountains and swimming in crystal clear lakes with Rob Green and his lovely wife Sarah at the “Triathlon Hideaway” in the Lake District. My kind of therapy. I’d signed up to race the Breca Buttermere Swimrun, which would now fall alarmingly 2 weeks after Bolton. So this was a chance to reccy some of the new route with team mate Paul (Lunn) and introduce Claire and her partner Kat (Berry) to the joys of running in a wetsuit and swimming in trainers! A total breath of fresh air – both physically and metaphorically.

Alan Murch’ stepped up again, this time by organising a trip to the Derby Velodrome for a few hours consulting with the “pharaoh of aero” Dan Bigham. A handful of free watts were duly bagged and Murch’s legend status cemented.

To restore some confidence in my swimming I had a stroke analysis session with Chris Hine (Pure Performance Coaching). We tweaked my stroke to better suit the open water and it worked wonders.

I’d spent some time pouring over the results from the last few years of IMUK and it seemed that a performance similar to the one I’d delivered in Lanza would all but guarantee me a spot at Kona. And the course at IMUK is easy by comparison to Lanza right?


It’s a dangerous game basing the level you need to attain on past results though...

A race with a “soft target” one year, suddenly becomes ├╝ber competitive the year after as word spreads and would be Kona Qualifiers swarm to the start line, from far and wide, in the hope of an easy Kona in.

Having cast my eye over the start list I’d identified several quality GB athletes who would make my life hard. Additionally, a few overseas athletes had appeared on the start list. That’s always cause for concern with Bolton not being your typical race for foreign Ironman box-tickers. A bit of Google stalking revealed several with impressive palmares that would almost certainly be in Bolton looking for Kona Qualification.

IMUK would be no cake walk this year but I felt in a positive frame of mind and my mojo was definitely back.

It was in stark contrast to how I’d felt going in to Lanza. The pressure was still there in the weeks before Bolton, but I felt like I was rising to it, rather than buckling under it.

In the build up to race day I was consciously taking a different approach. Controlling the controllables and not sweating the small stuff. Having got myself so wound up in Lanzarote, I’d decided to treat Bolton like just another domestic race. I’d knock off work and drive up north a few days before, race hard, finish top 4, qualify for Kona and go back to work.


But things are rarely that simple.

I executed the first part of my plan pretty well. I arrived in Bolton on Friday at about 5pm. Just enough time to register and get back to my “Premier Inn” to embrace my inner Alan Partridge (large plate in hand).

Mum was joining me for the weekend, although she had booked into a nearby hotel that accepted guests of the four legged variety as well! We met up for supper and made a plan for the next few days.

On Saturday morning I had a short swim session to do so ventured to Pennington Flash which was only a few miles down the road. Everything felt normal, familiar and very British.

Cold? Check...

Grey? Check...

Raining? Check...

Swim Reccy - Rain ever present

The conditions didn’t phase me. I knew they would play to my advantage on race day. I felt relaxed and happy.

I bumped into a few friends including the ball of energy that is Nikki Bartlet. That girl is a real tonic and you can’t help but feel energised in her company.

Once into the Flash, I felt great – it was the perfect temperature and wonderfully calm as I knocked out two shortened swim laps.

The remainder of the day was spent with the tedious logistics of setting up two transition areas and race briefing etc... Not the ideal prep, but needs must.

Finally back at the Premier Inn I was now ready to chill. Claire was driving up from Leicester and would be joining me soon. I couldn’t wait for her to arrive.

IMUK has a typically British start time of 6:00am. This meant a 3:00am alarm call to get my breakfast down before heading to the Flash in the pre-dawn murk. I hadn’t slept much but was happy that I was well rested going into the race, so that didn’t worry me.

It was still dark as we trudged from the car-park to the race venue. Electricity generators buzzed in the far distance. I could see the skies were gloomy and rain looked set in for a good chunk of the morning. Control the controllables I repeated to myself.

The vibe at the Flash was fairly chilled when Claire and I arrived. I popped quickly into transition to inflate tyres and sort my nutrition. I didn’t fancy hanging around to get wound up.

The unmistakable tones of Paul Kaye crackled over the tannoy. As he introduced the pros I got myself into my wet-suit and joined the appropriate swim pen for the rolling start.

I opted for the 55:00 – 60:00 minute zone and quickly found some friends for a natter.

The pros were soon underway and we followed some 5 minutes later.

This was it. The last chance saloon.

As I ran onto the start pontoon I was cheered by Claire, Mum and George (the boarder terrier). I stopped for a quick smooch (with Claire, not the dog) before crossing the timing mat to start my day.

Claire and George supporting the swim

The water seemed calm and I instantly found completely clear water. This was incredible. I’d had worse biff in my morning pool sessions! I was passing people from the off and nobody was coming past me. You gotta LOVE rolling starts. I just felt at ease. Chris Hine... you are a genius.

I moved from feet to feet. Feeling smooth and controlled. I sensed I was swimming comfortably at sub 60 minute pace and it felt easy. “This is more like it” I mused.

Glancing at my watch at the end of the first lap, I was a little surprised to see 30 minutes had already ticked by. Claire and Mum were waving frantically but their cheers were quickly stifled as I jumped back into the Flash eager to begin lap 2 and try to up my pace.

I hit a little more congestion the second time round. It had taken almost 30 minutes to get all athletes into the water and we were now weaving through the back markers. No major bother though, I was able to thread my way though and was soon pulling myself up onto the pontoon to complete the swim.

I was buzzing!

Much happier than Lanzarote

I glanced at my watch and instantly had the wind taken out of my sails. ANOTHER 1:03 swim?? Eh? What gives? That had to be a long swim.

After conferring with friends after the race, my suspicions had been confirmed with the course measuring maybe an extra 200m.

The rain was coming down pretty hard as I ran toward the change tent. I was trying to decide how much kit to put on. I figured my sleeved tri-suit would be enough but I opted for arm warmers as the air felt cool. Pulling the tight fitting Lycra over wet skin cost me a little time but I knew I had made the right decision as I left on my bike and the wind-chill hit.

More cheers from Claire and Mum and I was on my way for the opening section that links to the main loop.

Race power felt easy. Maybe we had a tail wind. Even still, I had to force myself to obey my power meter and resist the urge to go with the overeager pace being set by the riders who were passing me. The run was where I’d hoped to do the damage.

I settled into a comfortable pace and it wasn’t long before I was starting the main loop (which would be ridden twice). Not much later the first challenge of the day arrived – the climb of Sheep House Lane.

I’d tackled this climb in similar conditions during my reccy ride with Foggy. Though on that occasion I’d left my front eTap battery on charge back in Leicester, so had grovelled up in the big ring. Today, with the luxury of a 39 chainring at my disposal, it presented no real problems and was efficiently dispatched to the cheers of a crowd of overexcited Mexican wrestlers (you had to be there).

The decent was fast, furious and scary in equal measure.

The A675 from Belmont to Roddlesworth had been a fantastic wind assisted blast on my reccy. Today it was a demoralising block head wind grovel.

And that set the tone for the remainder of the lap.....

Flying one minute... grovelling the next. Braking for sharp corners... accelerating out of them. The descents, when they came, were so slick with rain that I struggled to make back the time I was losing on the tougher sections. The roads were typically British and nowhere could I really settle into a rhythm. It’s a super challenging course that really suits the punchy rider.

The kind of rider I’m not.

Into the second lap and I was feeling the affects of the constant spikes in power. The climbs of Sheep House lane and High Moor seemed significantly steeper this time round. My legs were pretty toasted.

I was also coming across a significant number of draft packs who seemed happy to work together. Indeed, I’d spent a good 10 miles of lap 2 towing a small train who would then blast passed me, only to slow down when they felt the effects of the wind.

I didn’t have enough matches left to risk pushing into the red to drop the trains, so resigned myself to coming of the gas and letting them go off and do their thing. Their was no way I was joining them on their immoral crusade. Sadly I didn’t see a single draft buster all day so I’m convinced a good many of these riders would have gained significant advantage from their antics.

The last 10 miles were wind assisted and I felt some energy returning to my legs. As the weather had been cool for most of the ride, I hadn’t felt the need to drink all that much. I wasn’t worried about my state of hydration, but liquids is also how I get my calories on the bike and I was a little concerned that I’d under fuelled. I did my best to drain what was left on my bike in the closing miles – A decision I’d later regret.

Coming into the Macron Stadium I glanced at my power meter. NP of 251 watts. Holy hell.

That was high for me. A tad too high for my liking. While I’d tried to ride conservatively, those hills and all those accelerations had clearly affected my numbers.

Jumping off the bike I didn’t feel too bad, save for a bit of worrying discomfort in my gut. I was really starting to wish I hadn’t sunk so much liquid in the last 10 miles of the bike.

If I just started steady I thought, I could let the nutrition work it’s way through and I’d surely benefit from it later in the race.

Starting steady is easier said than done on the Bolton course since the run climbs tortuously through a housing estate for the first mile or so.

As I began my marathon I spotted Claire and the Liveseys Mark and Caroline who were going bananas on the road side.

Claire with one of her famous signs

12th Dunc!! 12th in your Age-Group!!

Ok I thought, far from ideal... But I can do this.

I knew there were several strong bikers in my Age-Group. When they’d come past me during the ride I noted that they didn’t look like runners. But right now, I didn’t feel much like a runner either. Normally I run pretty well off the bike, but today my legs felt destroyed. The bike had taken it’s toll and my guts were doing somersaults.

It didn’t phase me though – I still felt positive and was happy just trotting along at 7 minute pace waiting... hoping... for my legs to come good.

If I’m honest, they took their sweet time and I was left wondering, on more than one occasion, if two Ironmen in two months was going to prove a bridge too far.

Thankfully though, once onto the main loop I was starting to find my rhythm. The downhill run into Bolton allowed me to rally myself for the meat of the course – the 3 full laps that followed.

Claire, mum and my other supporters had now decamped to Bolton and were waiting for me at the end of the loop in town.

10th Dunc! Mark yelled. Things were moving in the right direction and I felt like I could start to attack the course.

Through the centre of town

The main out and back loop is about 9k. The out leg is a cruel uphill slog with the return to Bolton town centre offering a brief chance to stretch the legs before the slog returns.

Coming back into town for the second time, more on course support.. 8th Dunc – Looking strong! (Cheers Alistair)

One full lap down... two to go.

I was feeling it now. Typically, the sun had now come out, but there was enough shade on the run to offer periodic respite. Bolton is no Lanzarote of course, but I was still needing to douse myself with water at every aid station to keep cool. Mercifully, the nutrition was now going down well and, while I felt less than stellar, I knew it was important to keep fueling – even if I didn’t much feel like it.

The second lap tested me. I was starting to suffer. I drew strength from the Pros on the course. Lucy G was leading but looking like she was having to dig deep into the hurt locker to hold off a very fast moving Diana Riesler in second. Nikki was looking like she could run through walls in 3rd and even had time to offer me a few words of encouragement. Not sure where Will Clark was in the men’s race – but he was hooning!

I just had to hang in there, keep moving forward and minimise time lost at the aid stations.

End of lap 2 and 7th place confirmed by my cheer leaders!

another lap down and moving through the field

Something pretty weird happened on my final lap. My mind wandered back to Lanzarote and the negative head-space I’d found myself in back then.

It wasn’t happening today. I was going to batter this last lap.

My legs felt like lumps of wood. But I had energy and, perhaps more importantly, the desire to keep pushing.

And I was going to push... for every single second of the last lap.

I don’t remember much about it... Except for the last 2 miles where I just seemed to get faster and faster. I weaved though fading runners as I entered the last mile at what felt like a sprint.

I ran straight through aid stations... only grabbing water to throw over my head. Calories weren’t going to help me now.

I felt like I was running a 5k.

Final bend

Into the finish chute, over the line..... and onto the deck.

Duncan Shea-Simonds 6th M40-45

4 Kona spots in my Age-Group meant it would be another anxious wait until roll-down.

In a cruel twist of fate, moments later I was relegated to 7th in my Age-Group after a fast finishing American crossed the line. Although finishing behind me, he’d obviously STARTED behind me as well (1:07 swim), but recorded a faster overall time by 38 seconds!

How could I possibly deal with losing a Kona spot by 38 seconds.

I had to feel positive though. I’d truly emptied the tanks and if that’s how my Kona campaign was to end, then I could be satisfied knowing I’d given it my all.

The legend Paul Kaye post race - all smiles

Over beer and Pizza with, Claire, Caroline and Mark, we analysed the results.

I was pretty sure that Mark in 1st and Joe in 3rd would not be taking their Kona spots this year.

I felt the Belgian and the American would almost certainly take theirs. I couldn’t see them coming to Bolton for any other reason (sorry Bolton).

That left two other Brits. One of which had to turn down their spot to give me the golden ticket.

I had a nervous wait ahead and I’ll be honest... I wasn’t full of confidence.

The following day I’d resigned myself to my fate. I headed back to the Macron Stadium primarily to watch the prize giving and support all the amazing performances from the day before.

Claire had ventured back to Leicester in the small hours as she had to return to work, but Mum (and George) were still with me.

Mum is one of my most loyal supporters. She travels to races with Claire and me and suffers the emotional ups and downs right along with us. She wanted me to qualify for Kona so badly. Almost as much as I did I reckon. She was noticeably subdued at the presentation – perhaps at the realisation that it was highly unlikely to happen today.

Before heading into the presentation, I stole a few words with Brett from Skechers. Brett has supported Race Hub from the early days. Skechers are now sponsoring the European Ironman Tour as well as such notable athletes as Lionel Saunders, Anja Beranek, Lucy Gossage and Nikki Bartlett. That they still have time for an ageing Age-Grouper is humbling. I desperately wanted to do Brett and Skechers proud so headed to roll down to meet my fate!

Mum and I watched as athlete after athlete went up to claim their spot. It’s wonderful watching individuals claiming their Kona spots.

You have the serial Kona Qualifiers, impressively winning their Age-Groups by country miles, who casually collect their Hawaiian leis with little emotion. Yeah whateva.

Then those who are clearly finally fulfilling a life long dream – wiping back tears as they have their photo taken by a proud loved one.

All the while I’m thinking 38 f***ing seconds... Please... It can’t come down to 38 seconds. It made me sick to think about it.

And soon enough it was time for Paul Kaye to announce my Age-Group.

“First place Mark Laithwait” Pass. As expected.

Still 4 spots remaining.

“Second place Nicholas Clarry” (One of two Brits who I needed to turn their spot down)

He jumped to his feet with a “Yes!” the moment the first syllable of his first name was called.

Balls! – 1 down, 3 spots left.

“Third place Joe Duckworth” Pass. No Surprise.

Still 3 spots left, but still 3 athletes in front of me. It was slipping away.

“Fourth place Scott Whittlestone”..... Silence

Holy shit...

“Scott Whittlestone?”..... Paul repeated

Don’t stand up.. Don’t stand up!!

“Scott?”.... “Ok, so no Scott, still 3 spots left”

The maths was simple, but my brain must have done the arithmetic 20 times in the 10 seconds that followed.

Hang on... 3 places left... 2 athletes in front of me.

Shit... I was going to Kona.

I had to wait for two more spots to be allocated and, as expected, the Belgian and the American both claimed theirs.

I would take the last spot.

I had to feel for the German guy behind me. 2 minutes and 43 seconds adrift.

He’d swam 7:32 quicker than me and our bikes rides were separated by 2 seconds!

I’d run 8:10 quicker though and suspected that I’d caught him on that last lap when I’d found my second wind. I knew better than anyone how he'd now be feeling.

I did it! Texting friends and chatting with Brett

Say what you want about Kona qualification but for the most part it continues to be hard and closely fought. My success or failure came down to less than 0.5% in the end.

To all my friends and family who offered advice and encouragement before the event, found me seconds in the pool or watts on the bike, supported me with equipment and cheered me on the course. I owe you big time. It wouldn’t have happened without you – it’s as simple as that.

And to Scott Whittlestone, the guy who wasn’t at roll down to collect his spot, who I later learned had already qualified at Ironman South Africa. The first beer is on me in Kona mate.

Everyone needs a bit of luck in this game.

In Part 1 of my Kona Qualification blog I asked the question “Is the final result alone worth all the stress and anxiety?”

I suppose the answer is.... “it depends”.

Ultimately, it depends on how much that final result means to you personally. The final result for me in this case was the opportunity to join my wife Claire and a number of dear friends on the beach in Kona as a competitor. And it meant a lot... A whole lot.

But here’s the rub. As well as those personal reasons for wanting to achieve something, there is also satisfaction in achieving something which is hard fought. And I believe that the fight is an essential part of the ultimate reward and sense of achievement. The reward, and the effort required to achieve it, are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

Or to coin a phrase... “without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain't as sweet”

And this will be different for everyone. Even if the result is the same.

A sub 20 minute park run might mean the world to someone. Kona Qualification might mean nothing to another.

But the moment I got my final result... the hardship it took for me to achieve it evaporated in a heart beat. The lump in my throat and the welling in my eyes told me how much it meant to ME.

So yes... all the stress and anxiety was 100% worth it.

Will I keep doing it? Probably not.

Because without the end result... it’s just isn’t worth it. The process itself isn’t enough any more.

I’ve experienced some incredible races in my time and there are many more adventures out there which are no less challenging (and plenty that are more so) than Ironman triathlon.

There are races which have an intrinsic pleasure and enjoyment that I’ve missed in recent years. They are worth doing just because they just are... not because of where you finish, or what time you do, or how many people in an arbitrary 5 year age band cross the finish line before you do.

So after 2017 I’m hanging up my Kona swim skin and heading off to find different and enjoyable sporting challenges (triathlons included of course!)

I reckon Kona and me are done – but it’s been something I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

And I know what you’re all thinking....

That Duncan... he doesn’t half talk bollocks!

Massive thanks to everyone who has helped me this year....

Race Hub
Jack Maitland - The Triathlon Coach
Skechers Perfomance
Giant Bikes
Huub Wetsuits
CEP Compression
High 5 Nutrition
The Tri Hideaway
Pure Performance Coaching
Watt Shop
Performance Chef - Alan Murchison

My amazing wife Claire - who helps me dream big
My Awesome Mum
My brilliant training buddies

And George the wonder dog

Monday, 31 July 2017

Kona Qualification 2017 - A Tale of Two Races

Goals are important in sport.... critical in fact.

Without a goal, you really can’t decide how much discomfort you need to put yourself through in training.... or how many sacrifices you need to make.

2017’s goal was to qualify for Kona so I could join Claire on the start line, after she'd qualified in Tenby last year.

Goal set...

Discomfort? Probably lots.

Sacrifices? Most likely many.

Would it be worth it? I really hoped so.

I’d earmarked Ironman Lanzarote as my qualification race. I’d always followed the “better the devil you know” school of Ironman Kona qualification and since I’d raced (and narrowly missed qualification) at Lanza before, I knew what would be required. More importantly I knew that, given a solid race, Kona qualification was within my ability.

So just the small matter of getting myself into the shape required and my coach Jack Maitland had that one covered.

Easier said than done of course. Lanza being early season requires all those key endurance training sessions to be completed through a British winter. Which always adds a cold, miserable and often soggy dimension to Ironman preparation. Glamorous it ain’t.

I was lucky this year though. I think the purgatory of a 5 hour Wattbike session was only suffered on one occasion, with the weather at all other times never being sufficiently biblical to stop play (AKA suffering) on the roads. Some great club rides with the Race Hub crew went some way to making the winter miles tolerable.

I’d had 2 weeks of glorious respite with a great training trip to Mallorca which bought my final preparations to a tired but satisfied conclusion. With two taper weeks back in the UK to sharpen the saw.

The only fly in the ointment was my lack of racing up to this point. I didn’t have the luxury or opportunity so Lanza would be my season opener.

I’d had so much support from friends and family leading into this race. My main Mallorca training buddy (and fine athlete) Alan Murchison had sent me a super fast chain for race day and many others had expressed their belief in me to get the job done. It felt like all the boxes had been ticked and any marginal gains secured.

Bike with super fast chain and shallow front wheel for the cross winds

Maybe this was why, going into the race, I felt more nervous than usual. There was really no reason for a poor performance.

Or to put another way... No excuse.

I’d tried to get my head around (and a grip on) my nerves heading into the race, but if I’m honest, I really let the occasion get the better of me.

I’d told myself (and others) that I would not “chase” Kona qualification this year. If things didn’t work out at Lanza, I’d walk away and join Claire in Kona as a tourist not an athlete (hold that thought)

But the fact remained that I wanted a result REALLY badly and this self imposed “one shot” pressure had started to suck the joy out of the event and the few days leading up to it.

It was only by pretending I was on “holiday” with Claire and Mum, that I was able to avoid going completely stir crazy.

A big part of triathlon for me has been the opportunity to travel and share the experience with friends and family. With the pleasure part of the equation missing in action, I found myself asking some searching questions. If there isn’t any enjoyment... what’s the point? Is the final result alone worth all the stress and anxiety? For now, I didn’t have the answers, but I did have a race to do.

And things didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts...

The swim was brutal. That came as no surprise. It was savage the last time I raced at Lanza and nothing had changed since. Still a mass start, still very little space on the beach and still a turn a few hundred meters from shore. All of which creates mayhem.

This year was made even worse by the organisers deciding to let the “All World Athletes” (AWA) start behind the Pros and in front of the fastest Age-Group swimmers.

This would be a great idea if AWA status was awarded on swimming ability.

Except it isn’t. You get points simply for completing multiple races. Like a Tesco Club Card for Ironman.

Unsurprisingly, carnage ensued.

After 10-15 minutes of near drowning I was losing my sense of humour.

“This is crap”...

“Why am I doing this?”...

“Jeez Dunc – man up and get stuck in!”...

I pressed on swimming wide, simply to avoid the melee and find clear water. The end of the swim could not come soon enough. I was 1:03 out of the water. Slower than I’d cruised in training earlier that week, but still very much in the game.

Glad that's over!
Onto the bike and I was a little happier. More at home with wheels beneath me.

My spirits were buoyed as I rounded the El Golfo coast – easily the most beautiful part of the course for me. I had some cloud cover, the wind on my back and ribbon smooth black top to enjoy.

El Golfo Coast
Power felt good – this was more like it.

A half smile broke my grimace.

But once back into the barren interior of Lanzarote, the wind, heat and mountains begun their steady, unrelenting erosion of my spirit once more. The wind reduced my speed to demoralising levels so I focussed on power throughout the bulk of the ride.

Me... the wind... the heat and 3 little digits on my bike computer. My entertainment for the next 4 hours.

Inside the last 15 miles, the Nazaret road really was the final straw. The roughness of this particular stretch of hell is farcical. Littered with ejected drinks bottles and bits of bike it brings grown men to their knees.

The high speed decent back to Puerto Del Carmen lifted my moral a little but even this was tempered by the unrelenting winds that had been cruelly switching direction all day, threatening to send me into the jagged lava fields and making an already tough day even tougher.

I couldn’t wait to get off the bike and was actually looking forward to the marathon. It’s probably become my strength in more recent years. I knew that from here on, I’d be moving up through the field.

A swift transition and I was out of the change tent like a scolded cat, clipping along the scorching promenade like a crazy fool.

First 3 miles all sub 7:00

Woah there Dunc!! You’re an ok runner but you’re not that good!

My mercury was rising. I needed to chill my jets and get on top of my nutrition. Looking down, my gels had all parted company with my race belt. Great. It would be Coke and Red-Bull for me from here on.

On to the run - Mercury Rising

Training through the British winter (and the tan I’d acquired) had done little to prepare me for the rising temperatures I now faced. With the drink stations being further apart than I would have liked, my thermostat was now kicking in. I had to moderate my efforts and hope that those around me were suffering as much, hopefully more, than me.

In the heat, I’ve learned there really is little point in fighting or ignoring it. Speed has to be moderated. It dents the ego but you can’t cheat your biology. Heat requires cooling and cooling requires that precious resources be directed AWAY from the muscles used for locomotion.

I was moving through the field though thanks in no small part to the tremendous support from Claire and Mum who would pop up at opportune moments around the course and make sure I kept trucking.

Awesome support as ever from Claire

The first loop was a lonely 30k vigil out to Arrecife and back. Save for the pros on their way back, I saw barely anyone. I cheered Lucy C, Lucy G and Corrine who were all looking super strong.

I took solace from the fact that those around me seemed to be suffering in the conditions. My run training always includes lot of high quality sessions at 10k and 5k pace. As such, on a flat course, I can truck along at sub 8:00 pace on fumes. But I just didn’t have the heat tolerance to lift things to the level needed for the run split I wanted and knew was in me.

Claire was unable to give me much intel on my position within my age-group as the on-line tracker was being typically sporadic. I’d estimated that I was inside the top 10 but probably not close enough to the sharp end to guarantee a qualification spot.

My moral dropped and I fought to keep negative thoughts from entering my head.

I was soon joined by an excited young Spanish supporter who ran along side me clapping and shouting encouragement. Several minutes later he was still there! He meant well but his high pitched screeching was wearing thin and I desperately needed some silence in which to focus. So the poor lad eventually found himself on the receiving end a subtle hand-off.

So this race had now reduced me to to somebody who assaults children – great.

The 2nd (12k) lap passed without much drama as I chugged along at my heat induced top end. I crossed the line with a 3:28 marathon and 10th in AG.

Run Finish

It had been a hot, slow run day but I’d suffered less than many. My run split was quicker than 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in my AG, but I’d hemorrhaged time on the bike. And that had cost me dearly.

I was glad to have held things together for another tough Ironman finish but I was left feeling more than a little deflated at my final position.

While happy that I’d “got it all out” in the conditions, I still felt disappointed that I was over 20 minutes off the pace of the top 5. Mind you, one of those was an Ex-Olympian triathlete Dennis Looze and he only managed 3rd. And the winner was a ludicrous 20 minutes clear of second place!

Factoring out the top end “pro-botherers” in my Age-Group, the rest of us were fairly tightly bunched. The three M45-M49 athletes who finished in front of me were all within 3 minutes of my finish time. The next 3 behind all 4 minutes adrift. 7 minutes covering 7 athletes after over 10 hours of racing. I could take some solace in the fact that I was in the same ballpark - rather than just playing the same sport. And on another day things may have worked out differently.

Make no mistake. The top AG guys are fast and competition for Kona spots is close and fierce. The top 3 guys (and girls) in most age-groups are now in a different league to the rest, leaving everyone else, closely packed and fighting for the scraps. I knew with only 5 Kona spots in my AG I needed a miracle.

I’ve seem miracles happen though and I knew I had to attend roll-down the following day.

With several pre-qualifiers in the category and a few others passing up their spots, the final qualifying spot rolled down to 9th. I remember the guy well. We’d spent most of the marathon together, vying for position. He’d pushed on inside the last 5 miles while I was at my lowest ebb. I remembered thinking that a few minutes were probably academic. I won't make that mistake again.

He’d finished 2 minutes and 2 seconds ahead of me to claim the final spot.

I was kicking myself.

I thought.... “screw Ironman” and “screw Kona”.

But deep down I knew... I couldn’t end my 2017 Kona campaign here.....

To be continued.......