Monopoly on emotions – IM 70.3 Staffordshire

Do you know that feeling when objectively you should be proud of your achievement, but are just moderately happy, knowing that you could’ve done better?

That’s how I feel after this weekend’s IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire. Let me walk you through the experience. It’s a longer one, so buckle up! (tl;dr – went ok, could be faster)

Before I start describing the actual triathlon aspects of the race, let’s just acknowledge the brand that IRONMAN has. It’s the brand of dreams – fair enough, the founders of it created the IRONMAN distance and every other 140.6 mile triathlon has just copied it. It is fascinating to me, though, how much emotion is connected to the red M-DOT logo, to that carpet leading up to the finish line, to the experience of participating in a true IRONMAN-branded event, which is rather costly (£250 for a half-IM, £450 for a full one – it’s a cost of an iPad that you’re paying for 10+ hours of pain). These guys don’t sell you an opportunity to torture yourself for hours and hours i.e. do a full-distance triathlon – they are selling you a dream of becoming almost super-human, defeating the physical limits of other mortals (and torturing yourself during the experience). There’s a lot a brand can learn from the IRONMAN monopoly over triathlon emotions. Probably worth a separate post.

On to the experience itself. IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire was my third triathlon – after a sprint distance at the end of April and a standard distance beginning of June. Those triathlons had no more than 150-200 competitors – this one had over 2000 people on the starting list! Therefore it had to be organised in a very different way – a compulsory race briefing on Saturday (actually, four of those before the race to accommodate the crowds; you only had to attend one), special bags for each discipline, clear instructions and schedule with regard to racking, wave times etc. Suffice to say, it wasn’t an event to which you could just turn up on Sunday at 5 AM and start.

I registered on Saturday, got my special backpack and bags and attended a race briefing (in a tent with hundreds of athletes, which was rather intimidating). First worrying news about the race day: the temperature was to be horrendous. During a triathlon / marathon you ideally want the temperature to be below 20 degrees Celsius – the forecasted air temperature for Sunday was supposed to be over 30 degrees. In the UK. On a half-IRONMAN race day. Proper hydration and sun screen suddenly became even more important than before. You probably won’t be surprised when I say that I did not have the opportunity to train in this heat in the UK before – not because I didn’t go out for a brick session when it was hot outside, but because there literally wasn’t a day like this in 2017 / since I started triathlon training in November 2016. Sounded like fun!

After racking of the bike and a debate with myself whether to reduce the tyre pressures and then pump the tyres back up in the morning (an IM guy said that a lot of tubes had been popping because of the heat) I left to drive to an average hotel in Walsall, still carbloading as I had been for the past two days (always feel like a Michelin man when I carbload). Further preparations at the hotel included a failed attempt at applying the number tattoo to my arm and as much sleep as I could get.

4:00 AM – the alarm clock went off, the tri suit went on, porridge and a banana went in and we set off from the hotel to Shugborough Estate, from which a bus would take us to Chasewater Counry Park, where the open water swim would take place. The day was already warm and it was only going to get warmer and warmer. We arrived at Chasewater before 6 AM – enough time to ensure that the tubes on the bike didn’t pop in the heat, use a porta-loo (feedback to IM – 10 loos for 2000 athletes is not enough!! I literally waited 30 minutes in the queue and I’m not exaggerating) and warm up with 10 minutes of jogging, some sprints and then stretching and other gymnastics. My wave was starting at 8 AM, so I put my wetsuit on around 7:40 AM (got better at doing it quickly!), having applied sun screen before already to create one layer of safety against the relentless ball of fire. One cap on, goggles on, the official pink IM cap onto those two (to prevent someone from accidentally taking off my goggles in the water) and I was ready to go.

My coach told me to use up as little energy in the water as possible – and so I did. I had overdone it, though – just two weeks earlier, during my standard tri, I did 1500m in 26 minutes, so the half-IM 1900m should’ve been finished definitely in less than 35 minutes. To my surprise and disappointment, when I came out of the water my Garmin showed 41 minutes – I surely did not waste almost any energy during the swim! The standard tri swim was horrible two weeks earlier – I felt like I was drowning, couldn’t breath for the first half of it and just wanted it to be finished asap. This time I was way too comfortable, breathing almost effortlessly, moving from buoy to buoy (not in a straight line, though, some work to do there ;)). Because I’ve never done a half-IM distance before, I didn’t know how hard I should / could push during the swim – my performance in September at the 70.3 in Weymouth will have to be better than this.

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Notice the glorious pink cap
Got out of the water and jogged into T1. The jog itself was over two minutes (!); once I got there, it all went as I had planned in my head (good exercise to ensure that you do it automatically, without thinking). Because of the distances, T1 took me over 6 minutes, which is pretty ridiculous, but wasn’t far off the others. Ran to the mounting sign, mounted the bike and began the 90km ride.

I don’t have a tri-specific bike – just a normal road bike from Decathlon with aerobars on it. The bikes in T1 must’ve collectively been worth £3-4 million – many of them straight from triathletes’ (wet) dreams. The old truth about the bike leg was once again confirmed, though – you can have the best bicycle, but if you don’t have the engine (i.e. your leg power), that bicycle won’t do you any favours. I have been working hard on my engine, hitting many hills and fighting on every training ride, hence could overtake many athletes, also on very fancy bikes. I pushed hard, averaging 35 km/h, climbing hills with moderate ease and generally enjoying myself. The feeding stations were an experience on their own – during one of them I rode so fast that I knocked three bottles out of three consecutive people’s hands without grabbing a single one 🙂 so on the next one I knew to slow down, as the sun was up and doing its thing already, hence hydration with electrolytes was not to be underestimated or forgotten. In the second part of the bike leg my lack of experience with this distance came into play once again, as I started to feel some fatigue in my legs – have I pushed too hard? Will I make it? Will I have enough energy for the run? I increased the cadence, put the bike on an easier gear and slowed down a bit, still trying to average at least 30 km/h. I hit T2 after 2:50 hrs – again, slight disappointment; I’m sure I could’ve done at least 2:45, if not closer to 2:30hrs. Point no 2 to improve in Weymouth.

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With my pouch full of gels
T2 was quick. Rack the bike, cycling shoes off, running shoes on, hat on and off I went. I was glad that my wife convinced me to spend £20 on an IRONMAN hat a day before – the sun was really relentless by the time I started running and without the hat, the consequences might have been dire…

I had good energy during the run. My last bike+run sessions ended up with my liver hating me for not fueling properly – this time a combination of a gel every 20 minutes and electrolytes all the time during the bike leg turned out to be perfect. With no pain in my liver, I applied sun screen while running (did it two more times before the finish) and kept ploughing on. Three laps of the course amounting to a nice half-marathon. Because what else would you like to do after a swim and a cycle?

The blessing of the run course was the fact that there were 3 feeding stations with water, electrolytes, Coke, bananas etc., so with three laps you passed these 9 times in total – and they were desperately needed. I pounded electrolytes and poured water on my head at every one of them. The spectators were great as well – some of them took out their garden hoses and sprayed the athletes, for which we couldn’t be grateful enough. One thing to watch out for was the fact that on lap two and three the stations started to add ice into electrolytes and water – and with this temperature and the body heat at that point of the race, this could’ve been suicide. I have learned my lesson, though – you can read about it here – and stayed away from ingesting anything cold.

The curse of the run leg was a hill that you had to defeat three times during the half-marathon. I was happy with myself because of the fact that I kept running and didn’t stop to walk even once during the race. What I wasn’t happy with was the speed – I felt like I had energy left, but couldn’t go quicker for some reason. Point no 3 to improve on in Weymouth – again, I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish the race in this heat and on this distance if I pushed harder. I crossed the finish line with a running time of 1:48:02, total time of 5:28:50 and a mixed feeling of excitement and not being entirely satisfied with my performance.

That is a discovery that I desperately need to work on – this ambition that keeps me from celebrating an achievement that I hadn’t even thought of a year ago. And it all comes down to the feeling that I haven’t given it all. After the Greater Manchester Marathon in April this year I had to sit for half an hour before I was ready to go home. The next day I walked like a grandpa. The day after Staffordshire I went for a 1.5 hrs cycle to get my legs moving a bit.

Now at least I have this experience and know that I can push more. And I will push harder during Weymouth – I promise this to myself and you. For now I’m proudly wearing my IM 70.3 Staffordshire finisher t-shirt and am humbly carrying on with training. On to the next one!

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