*** many thanks to David Labouchere for this race report ***
“Still as they run they look behind, They hear a voice in every wind, And snatch a fearful joy.” Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747) l.38
I entered this race in May 2011 and trained well – mostly with friends in Dubai who make up TRIbe Racing - throughout the latter part of 2011 and early 2012. Milestones along the way included a host of races, inter alia: the Beast (Jebel Hafeet Sprint), the YAS Olympic, the Mamzar Park Olympic, the Abu Dhabi International Long Course, the Abu Dhabi Half and a few more minor running races. Unfortunately, I suffered a minor but debilitating Achilles injury while doing some long runs at Christmas that precluded any running in 2012 and meant that I missed out on the excellent RAK Half and Dubai Marathon. Indeed, with the exception of some short walk/jog training sessions and the odd race required mileage in competition, I didn’t run at all in the lead up to Texas.
The last few weeks before IMTx brought a measure of science to my approach. Reliance on volume has been a feature of my training since taking up Triathlon. I had an attitude of: it’s not about natural ability, if I train long enough and hard enough I will be a world champion. There are obvious flaws in this plan. First, I might have noticed that few Olympians in any physically demanding sport are approaching 50, and second, I am six foot three inches tall and I weigh over 90 kilos – if I was a machine I’d probably be a Hummer - while most elite triathletes seem to be stick thin endomorphs who boast the power to weight ratio of a superbike. So to overcome these minor challenges a little science was required and I duly went off for testing by the impressive and unrivalled UAE time trialling cyclist, Duncan Clarke. He put me on a machine and measured my aerobic, cardio and muscular systems. The results, in simple terms that I can understand, indicated that while I could provide sufficient fuel to working muscles through oxygen capacity and a good pump, I was probably a bit weak when it came to muscle mass. Fuel provision good, engine torque and horses bad: power to weight ratio, abysmal.
I was lucky enough to be taken on by Nicholas Tipper for coaching about three months before the race. And this was the major step forward. He encouraged me to mortgage my house and sell one of the children in order to buy an SRM power meter and I quickly moved from a ‘quantity’ to a ‘quality’ approach to training. Swimming, cycling and gym work now dominated the programme and I quickly began to see tangible results. Being lame however he could do little for my running. When he heard how much fat coke, sweet coffee, pudding, chocolate, ice-cream, marshmallows and liquorice allsorts I consumed daily, he also persuaded me to abnegate [“to deny oneself” (I shall avoid being lexiphanic (given to the use of pretentious terminology, such as using the word lexiphanic) from here on)] sugar. It seems that I was well on my way to Diabetes…
So with fellow Tribesman Chris Jedi Knight as high quality company, I set off for the race.
The Woodlands in Texas is a stunning location. Built only thirty years ago (US historic?) as a ‘new town’ it is everything that the UK’s version (Milton Keynes) fails to be. It is different, primarily, because of Texan oil. Money has allowed a conformist haven to develop where everyone has enough, and many have a bit more. On the other hand my impression is that MK is peopled by Escort driving (and dating) disaffected and impoverished imbeciles and their second and third generation welfare-reliant children. [With apologies to readers (unlikely) from Milton Keynes. If you feel the need to discuss this or any of my other prejudices please call Chris.] In The Woodlands Bobby and JR clones dominate. 20 miles North of Houston, huge timber framed houses line leafy lake shores and Mexican labour keeps lawns pristine and big cars shiny. In MK illiterate hoodlums race unlicensed schoolboy scramblers across rubbish strewn parks and open areas, stopping only to graffiti misspelt rudeness on plastic cows. A few carry knives andgraduate to guns to keep up with the cousins in Brixton hood. Meanwhile in Texas the young go to church, respect their parents and study hard. They too carry guns, but this legally and with a measure of pride for the unnecessary right. The wide well-kept roads are full of well-driven 4x4s whose drivers demonstrate endless care and attention for other road users. In town, the roads are concrete and the expansion strips deliver a monotonous acoustic accompaniment to a good ride. Progress on a non-race day is interminably interrupted by traffic lights, but once out in the country the asphalt is smooth and rolling and perfect for the long-distance cyclist.
The weather at this time of year is warm. After a 16 hour non-stop Emirates flight to separate the environments there was a significant and welcome step-down in temperature. Chris and I settled into a comfortable ‘Hilton Garden Inn’ an equidistant mile from the separate swim start, transition area and finish. We arrived in the evening after a very long Tuesday and had plenty of time to acclimatize for Saturday. Daytime temperatures were in the early thirties and there was little or no wind to disturb the tall trees lining the freshwater lake in which we would swim, and then later around which we would run, three times. We ate well, spoilt for choice in the leafy suburbs where housing is separated by endless well stocked shopping malls, with every standard of restaurant from TexMex drive-throughs to Michelin starred steak houses.
We built our bikes and visited the expo, and swam a little in the tepid, shallow, tobacco-spit lake. And we drove the one-lap bike route out into the National Forest and beyond, savouring the gently rolling roads, and admiring Southfork and Northfork and every other ‘spread’ that popped up in white fenced splendour. With rising confidence we toured a landscape that someone’s God had clearly favoured. Here and there we would spot a High School with pristine and shiny sports facilities, gridiron fields, state of the art faculties and ancient BlueBird buses. Americana. A run down, but (with 50 cars outside) well-attended single story church at one moment and then a veritable palace of faith built on the highway strip with white marked parking for 500 cars the next. Mowing is clearly a vocation in this part of the world: the preserve of the servant and the retired. But not old fashioned pushmepullyou painful mowing: oh no, here it is all John Deere ride-on 21st century leisure mowing. Forrest Gump on a green machine. Quality work for Bubba. I would not be surprised if there are mowing clubs, and probably counseling for those addicted to it. Mowers Anonymous?
We passed landmarks that we would call upon when racing: ‘Construction Corner’ at 50kms, Osburn road, a lovely minor winding link deep in the dark primal forest, at 60kms, etc. And there was the Sheriffs car by the small but well-kept bungalow, just short of a country cemetery. Did he live there… or was he visiting? Well, it was still there the next day (mid morning on a working day) so we decided that Mary Lou received Boss Hogg on a regular basis. The cattle corrals at 120km would be the ‘two thirds complete’ moment. There is the odd hint of Bo, Luke and Daisy, but generally this fertile land provides good living for the well-heeled Texans who derive their income not from the earth but from oil. A couple of wooden sleeper bridges over quietly gurgling streams and a small area of gravel where floodwater had eroded a quiet country lane were minor worries. This promised to be a fast rolling bike course. No wind, no big hills, no problem.
The run course laps the lake three times. Wide sidewalks and roadways give way to ‘lifestyle living’ with benches and emerald green park lawns overlooking the winding path where the route joins the canal and town centre area. It is flat and often shaded by the lush woodland from which this community is carved. We biked a bit of it, and reconnoitered the finish area to make sure we knew when to give that last final ‘leave everything on the road’ dash to the finish.
Everyone in Woodlands knows what Ironman is. And everyone is interested. And everyone volunteers. So on race day there were significantly more volunteers than competitors, and this for a race of 2700 registered entrants. As we went about our preparation we were constantly struck by the endlessly polite, well-informed, positive interest that the race had produced in the community. As competitors we felt a little special, valued and welcome.
Race day and a predawn walk from Hotel. Sleep was still irregular as our bodies tried to come to terms with the 9 hour time difference and suddenly neither of us felt fully ready. A sore throat and chesty cough brought about by poisonous company on the long-haul flight niggled at my confidence. But the bikes were racked and needed little attention under the floodlights. With transition bags checked and modern technology synchronized with satellites, we wandered pensively along part of the run course to the swim start. Early enough not to have to queue for the loo. Eat, drink, pee, poo, stretch, eat, drink, pee, think, visualize, hope and dream. The dark black chocolate coating of the ‘energy bar’ caught my eye as I put a final portion of fuel into my tank. The announcer was increasingly strident in his attempts to get everyone into the water, the scale of his task dawning on him as he surveyed the masses from his scaffold. To our left a 74 year old Canadian, wrinkled, confident, 7 visits to Kona in the bank. To the right a plump woman looking terrified. A silent mass of athletes moved steadily into the water, no wetsuits, 20 minutes to go. Chattering teeth in the cold, quiet, hyperfit mass of pink and green swim caps. 10 minutes. More threats and cajoling to get the more experienced racers out in the water onto the start. A moment of pure America as everyone froze with a hand on heart for the National Anthem. Shivering illegal for a few moments. Then the density of athletes increasing steadily again as nervous kayakers begged the convicted not to rock too hard. Sinking. And then, the gun.
2700 is too many swimmers. White water everywhere and kicking, striking, floundering, flailing legs and arms abound. I was hit in the soft underbelly and hard at the back of my head at the same time. Head up I struck out with a water polo stroke while desperately seeking clear water. Head down and you risked not being able to get your head up again as arm after arm, knee and hip slid over and under you. The small professional field was sent off ten minutes ahead of the swirling masses, their swim times would look artificially good. But slowly, and in a full contact, the dense mass began to move down the one lap ‘out, back and down the canal’ course. A rhythm slowly emerged but swimming was never designed to be a violent pastime, and an hour and fifteen minutes passed without three strokes going unanswered by thumps and kicks. The canal was both blessing and curse as the shoal was constrained to a 15 meter wide channel and people became tired and erratic. But sighting was unnecessary and the constriction meant that my habitual meander was forced onto an efficient line.
Out onto the bike and flooded with relief, I made steady progress through the pack of superior swimmers; fishes out of water and now blocking the bike leg. Riding on power, I struggled to curb my energy and to contend with an over-zealous but under-experienced marshal who was determined to slap me with a penalty for riding too close to others. She could not comprehend that as a faster rider I might need to overtake. I avoided her intentions and reached the half-way point in just over two and a half hours, which felt about right and reflected a steady power delivery of around 220w. So far all was going according to plan. I steadied a bit on the return leg, partly to achieve an average of 211w overall, and partly because the power was increasingly hard to deliver. Somewhere, and for the first time that week, a strong headwind had got up. My bike was structurally compromised by a terrifying crack in the carbon of the chain stay and the back wheel wobbled. I began to pray that it would hold together to the end of the race and not deliver me sliding to the tarmac at 50kmh. Memories of road rash from Phuket came rushing back to me. It held. I entered T2 in 5:13, which for me is an acceptable bike leg split.
Out onto the run and thinking ‘almost there’ (reminds me now of another visitor to Texas albeit in Dallas not Houston; JFK to his wife Jackie: “ almost done, just the short ride to the Airport…”). I experienced my usual slow transition from bike to run. Short steps. I told myself that my legs would start to work after a couple of miles. Breathing steady, heart-rate low. Fuelling had gone according to plan. I was going to post a good time, but the relatively slow swim time meant that I would probably not be competitive for a Kona qualifying slot. It had never been the aim of the race, but I allowed myself to dream a bit. And then, my lack of run training bit me. The afternoon was now very hot at around 35degC, and humid. I found that my legs were not easing into the run, indeed, running seemed to be getting harder not easier. Some pain in the Achilles. I laboured on, waiting for the usual lengthening of stride, and it didn’t happen. I walked through one feed station, and struggled into a jog as the throng of overeager volunteers called encouragement to my departing back. Then I walked through the next. And then I succumbed to the inevitable and I stopped trying to run.
Walking a marathon is horrible. ‘Great job!’ I heard, but it was not for me, it was for the man I destroyed in the water or on the bike who now trotted gently passed me. “Looking good!’ as I started my third lap. I turned to thank the supporter only to see that he or she was focused on the fat lady who had just left T2, and would no doubt still be on the course when I was home and in bed. But she was running, and I was not. I walked on. Chris caught me as I had nearly completed my second lap. “Are you finished?” I answered, “if only” and strode on. You have to train the run, and without training the biomechanics just won’t support you, no matter how fit you are. I had not trained and I paid a price. But, finally, after about 5 hours of walking, the end was in sight. As my time was now irrelevant, I milked the crowd as I walked slowly up the finishing chute. They had no idea that I had hoped for better things and they supported as they had throughout the race with endless enthusiasm and goodwill. I shook their hands, genuinely happy that the marathon was over. Walking up to the line, I made sure my number was showing, and duly noted the announcer warming to his task of announcing “David Labouchere – You are an Ironman!” I stopped. He stopped – he’d seen this before, unfunny, but the crowd were amused and in my slightly addled brain, so was I. I raised my arms and stepped over the line into the arms of 4 times World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington. She gave me a hug and a kiss and a ‘well done’, and I thanked her, returned the kiss enthusiastically and told her that she was nearly forgiven for overtaking me in South Africa. Our relationship now clearly established in the ‘long-term lovers’ category, I wandered off to the recovery area. Job done. I wasn’t particularly well and spent the next half hour heaving and battling cramp in a sun-baked portacabin, wondering why after 12 plus hours, the black chocolate coating from the pre-swim energy bar was the only thing left in my stomach.
With timings from the swim, data from the power meter for the bike and heart-rate and speed logged for the ‘run’, I have much to analyse from this race. The result was 12:22 total time – my worst result in three IM branded outings. Chris did much better, but also felt disappointed with his run. What does not need analysis is the superiority of the location, the friendliness of the people or the high standards of the organization of this race. It is a must-do experience for any globe-trotting Ironman.
I am now in the market for a new bike. I might get a Cervélo P5 for Caroline, but probably won’t, although in some ways it would be a good trade…
Kona, Hawaii in 2013 remains the longer-term aim. To go there I must qualify and to qualify I must complete a major race in the top 2 or 3 of my age-group. In the UK I was third, in South Africa 12th and in America I was around 60th out of 350 – not good enough by a Texan country mile, but tomorrow, who knows? With Nicholas Tipper in my corner to guide me to hours and hours of quality rather than quantity training, no sugar and the unconditional support of my very good friends in TRIbe, anything is possible. And a bit of running under my belt will help too. Roll on next season!