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.......