*** many thanks to David Charlier for this race report ***
"You can do anything you set your mind to."
Wise words. I think my spin on it would be "You can do anything you set your mind to - provided that your wife is supportive". I've often thought that Triathlon is inherently an unfair sport - there are different categories depending on age but nothing about how many children you have... I reckon I would have been at least top 100 in the "AG 40-45 with busy day job and 3 kids" category.
"Life is a journey; not a destination"
Lynn H. Hough
My journey into the world of triathlon started 2 years ago when a health scare convinced me to buy a bike. I started riding with the CSD guys out at Al Qudra and slowly built up the distance. In the summer of 2012 I started doing some gentle jogs (historical knee problems had meant I hadn't done any proper running for 10 years). Goaded, inspired, encouraged and cajoled in equal measure by Ian Le Pelley and Piers Constable I finally took the plunge (literally) by joining a DMSC session at Kings. Not having ever been taught how to swim this was, as you can imagine, something of a non-event. I think I managed 20 minutes then had to get out of the pool to be sick. However I persisted and after a few sessions Seth kindly gave me some pointers (like - "buy yourself some jammers - those board short pockets are making your feet drag along the bottom", that kind of thing). Years of driving a desk had also meant my back and knees were not geared up for ultimate extreme endurance exercise but Rachel at Dubai Physiotherapy was fantastic in coaxing my creaking frame to the start line of my first sprint distance event at Mamzar in November 2012. I did 2 more sprints that season and was hooked.
Last summer I decided I wanted to step it up. I bought a shiny new triathlon bike and also got in touch with Trace Rogers to try to add a semblance of structure to my training. I also switched to a paleo diet which helped my aeroscan results no end. Moving up to Olympic distance was a bit daunting but I successfully completed the 2XU at Al Mamzar in November. A shoulder injury interrupted my swim training for December / January but i recovered in time to do TriYas Olympic distance and then Abu Dhabi International Short Course. ADIT was a shocka - a mechanical problem thanks to a shoddy bike service the week before made the bike harder than it should have been. I wilted on the run and staggered round the 10km in an over-heated haze. My only consolation was that ADIT had been relegated to a 'B' race by the impending foray into Ironman events so I could consign my experience into the "lessons learned" box.
"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark."
I guess I always saw my friends who do triathlons as other-worldy beings rather than mere mortals - they have trained themselves in a way that I am both incapable of doing and don't understand - and they achieve things which are akin to miracles of human endeavour which are far beyond me. So maybe it was curiosity - a desire simply to try it and see how I would cope - that led me to sign up for my first half Ironman. I chose St Polten because it looked pretty and wasn't too far away. It was also a race that Roy Nasr did last year and his report of St Polten was the first race report I read on the TriDubai website so I liked the idea of doing this one for him. The next step was to secure childcare (thanks Siân's Dad) and book flights and we were locked in.
After the disaster of ADIT I needed some solid training to get my confidence back. I also went to see Toby for a bike fit and he made some interesting changes such as shortening my cranks to give my hip flexors more room - something which was definitely going to help on the run. I made a point of swimming 3 times per week because my swimming is weak. I think if you only start to swim properly when you are in your forties you're always going to be struggling but the regular sessions helped and my shoulder seemed to be holding up. As ever work intervened and I found it hard to stick to my training plan but I did at least manage to fit in a couple of Hatta sessions and one weekend at Jebel Hafeet to try to find some power in the legs. The bike course at St Polten includes over 1000m of climbing and I was a bit worried about doing this and then having to run a half marathon. I have only previously run that far once – the Saucony half in October 2013 – so the idea of doing it after a swim and hilly bike leg was daunting.
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue."
In the lead up to the race I had a very busy work week and we were also trying to finalise renting a new place to live so all in all not the perfect preparation - but it could have been worse. We flew in to Vienna on the Thursday night and transferred to the hotel. We are spoilt in Dubai with all the 5* luxury hotels and this was certainly not 5* but it was clean enough and very convenient for the centre of St Polten. It was a bit scary packing my precious P3 but unpacking it proved fairly straightforward – the only setback being the puncture in the front tyre and then finding that my spare tube was also punctured. Cue a trip to the Ironman expo to pick up some spares. I had no idea what you should do in the final days before the race so I tried to follow the experienced Dubai athletes also competing at St Polten (Ian, Piers and others). I say competing because there is a big difference between those boys who were looking at topping their age group to us newbies who were just worried about finishing. Anyway this seemed to entail quite a lot of eating and resting. It was in fact the first time that Siân and I have been away without children since 2006 so we were luxuriating in not having small children demanding attention the whole time. The weather was glorious in Austria and, having registered for the race, a relaxing lunch by the lake on Friday helped calm the nerves considerably. We drove the bike course in the afternoon and it was clear that the 2nd climb in particular was not to be underestimated.
Saturday morning was quite stressful – sorting out the bike and then the transition bags. I definitely think that the most stressful part about doing these events is the logistics associated with the race – where do you have to be when, what do you need on your bike, etc. Bike check-in went ok and we walked around transition a few times to get a feel for the place. I think Piers called it "visualisation". A relaxing meal in the evening (Greek food – the carbo loader's nourishment of choice) and early to bed.
"Now is the time for guts and guile"
I thought I would struggle to sleep but actually I was out like a light so woke up feeling well rested. The main concern was to get to the bike and check everything was ok – which it was – so after that we had an hour or so to soak up the atmosphere and watch the Pros go off. The helicopter buzzing overhead added to the sense of occasion. Piers, Christophe Schuette and I were in the 0705 wave which was handy – the young pups were going out an hour later which would have meant more hanging around and running in the midday sun if you're slow like me. St Polten has a funny swim course which consists of 1000m in one lake followed by 900m in another lake with about 400m running inbetween. The water was chilly at first but not too bad – certainly warmer than it must have been last year when they had to cancel the swim – and the sun was shining. I was reasonably calm when the starter's gun went off – sticking 2 or 3 people back at the start to avoid the fast guys swimming over me. I didn't feel particularly quick in the water but was just concentrating on finding feet and keeping a good rhythm. The run between lakes was a bit disconcerting – across a bridge then down a slope thinking "please don't slip; please don't slip" and then down another steep bank into the 2nd lake. I could see the fast guys from the wave after us coming through but I have no illusions about my swim ability so this was fine.
SWIM TIME = 41 minutes. Slower than I would have liked but you have to add in time for the run and getting in and out of the second lake. Apparently most people were around 4 mins down on their typical 1.9km race time.
"Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth"
Into T1: "ok keep calm. Where is my blue bag?! Oh there it is. Right – helmet on, race number on. Stuff wetsuit into the bag – GET IN THE BAG STUPID WETSUIT! Ok I'm off. Hello bike, remember me? Now where is that mount line? Ok – feet in. is my power meter working? Phew it is."
My strategy on the bike was forged out of fear – fear of the hills on the bike course but more importantly fear of blowing up on the run and being unable to finish if I pushed it too hard on the bike. As a result of this I was very conscious of keeping my power below my 85% of FTP level (too embarrassingly low to publish here) which meant that the world and his dog on a tricycle went past me. This was quite depressing at times but I knew if I pushed it too hard I was in real danger of not finishing. I just kept telling myself to keep my head – not try to stay with the Austrian uberbikers (all of whom seemed to be called Andreas, Mark or Stefan) and I would be rewarded on the run. The St Polten bike course goes for around 25km along the motorway before veering up a steep slope to the first aid station. After that there is a windy downhill section with some tight turns. One guy flew past me on the downhill only to crash up ahead which was a salutary lesson. After the downhill is a long ride alongside the Danube to the 60km mark where you start the main climb up to Gansbach. The climbing itself wasn't too bad (especially having done Hatta – Showka in 40C) but keeping the power down was tricky. There seemed to be quite a lot of small groups drafting together and not many draft-busters but I kept well clear (probably too clear) and plodded on. Eventually we wound our way back down to St Polten and into T2.
BIKE TIME = 3H 07. Definitely slower than I had hoped. On Al Qudra I would typically zip round at 31-32kph so to limp round at 28.9kph, event taking into account the hills, was a bit of a shock. At this point I thought I had blown my goal of finishing in under 6 hours.
"It's better to burn out than fade away"
Into T2: "ok keep calm. Feet out of shoes. Where is the dismount line? There – elegantly done (not). Ok let's find the place in the stand for the bike. Got everything? No – don't forget the Garmin. Run to transition – where is my white bag? There it is – ok helmet off, sun visor on, sunglasses on, socks and trainers on. Sorted."
The thing about living and training in Dubai is that it is hot. Although I don't run as much as I should, most of my running is outside. When you suddenly travel to cooler climbs it is quite a pleasant surprise that you are able to maintain a higher pace with a lower heart rate. I had agonised long and hard about pacing on the run. A "base run" speed for me is around 5'50 / km but I knew that my (one and only) half marathon pace was around 5'05. I had no idea how I would feel getting off the bike but I was prepared to go at around 5'30 pace for the first 10km and then see how I got on. As it was I felt great from the start and before I knew it the kilometres were whizzing past at a heady 5'00 pace. I couldn't quite believe it – and even though I knew I would suffer for it later on I was determined to keep it up as long as I could. I reckoned it was better to set out at my target pace and hold it. Even though he started an hour after me, Ian went past at about 7km and was looking very strong (I think I might have told him I thought he was ahead of schedule). Piers caught me at 9km when he was on his second lap – but again this was as per my predictions and those guys are triathlon gods. The WAGs were cheering at the start/finish which gave me a little boost as I went out on the second lap. At about 12km it started getting harder and from then on it was progressively tougher and tougher to maintain the same pace. I was cursing my earlier over-exuberance but equally determined to get as good a time as I could. I didn't have the sprint finish I wanted but did manage to hold the pace reasonably well so all in all did a good run time.
RUN TIME = 1h 44
OVERALL TIME = 5H 40
I can safely say that I have never felt as tired as I felt immediately after the race. I was really happy with my pacing all the way through and delighted to go under 6 hours but it took a lot out of me. We had a little Dubai group of destroyed athletes lying on the grass just after the finish. I think it took about an hour before I was able to speak properly!
It was a great fun thing to do – made all the easier by having the two people that originally inspired me to try out triathlon there – Ian and Piers. The Dubai triathlon community really is very special and I couldn't have managed it without the help and assistance of loads of people but particularly Trace Rogers who was so understanding when I couldn't do half of what her training plans said I should do and Rachel at Dubai Physiotherapy who nursed me through interminable injuries. Most of all I have to say a big thank you to my wife, Siân, for supporting me and looking after the kids on all those Saturdays when I was too broken after training to be of any use. I've no idea what I'll do next but for the moment it's all about recovery!