"Warning. This report describes irresponsible and reckless behaviours that are could cause lasting damage. I DO NOT recommend that anyone reading this report uses it as a template for success in Ironman Racing"
‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’ - Army maxim.
I had the emergency escape seat by the wall. No window and face to face with the cabin crew for takeoff and landing. My neighbour was a middle aged woman from Northumbria (for those for whom UK geography is not a strong suite, that’s a place ‘up North’ where the men smell of work). She tried to be polite in response to my introducing myself - yes I do it on ‘planes as well as the AQ - but you could tell that she was struggling. Her son was in the Army Air Corps flying Apache helicopters. And she was quite unwell.
She stifled a cough with her hand and her skin had that nearly dead look. One sensed that she had a burning sensation behind her eyes. Sweat on her upper lip, an elevated temperature and uncommonly bad breath. Each time she coughed I turned away, trying not to seem too churlish.
I was on the Dubai Cape Town leg of my trip to PE and IMSA 2018. One of my key races this year and my ‘qualifier’ for Kona. I was fitter than I had ever been, and at the same time, as fragile as I had ever been. Preparing for IM is demanding and takes long hours and dietary discipline and this time I had delivered on both. I was at an insanely low body fat percentage; deliberately, unsustainably low. I wanted to run quickly and when it comes to the run, lighter is faster. My body was in a delicate state of balance that would carry me to the race finish line and probably no further. Post race week would be about putting weight back on.
I had taken some of my own advice on weight loss and reduced my intake of bread, pasta and rice. I’d done away with puddings and limited the amount of fruit that I ate. I did not snack between meals and welcomed hunger as the sensation one has when ones body is consuming its own fat stores; a mental trick that works well for me. I was not completely HFLC but more Normal Fat LC. I had trained predominantly fasted and long, eating only after exercise. I had an FTP of 340w and resting HR of 30. I weighed 83kgs hydrated.
Race week is a joy. As usual we were billeted at Lyn and Fred’s Hobie Beach Guest House (don’t even try, I have every room booked for the Ironman for the next five years!) and we settled into the routine of race week. Every morning we were up with the dawn and into the Southern Ocean at race time. Then back to a long hot shower and breakfast. We gently teased the phobians about whether Cyndi, Duke or Errol Finn - what an inspired name for a Great White shark! - had pinged in the bay that day. Modern technology is fantastic: you can track the big predators, or at least one in ten of them. It’s
a selfish week; no work, no kids, no strict timings, apart from the swim. A week of training but so lightly and specifically that one can feel the freshness building and the energy grow within you as the race approaches. Until, this year, Friday.
On Friday at four in the morning I was in trouble. I didn’t know what it was but I knew it was not right. A tickle in the chest, an ache in my bones, a warmth in my head, a no-reason headache and sweaty. I decided to blow it out at the swim with a nice salt water gargle. That had worked before. I ached more in the swim. Perhaps pre-race mind games? My body regularly playfully suggests a phantom injury during race week. I ate a good breakfast. It didn’t work. By lunch time I was in bed with a temperature, and I was miserable. I ached all over and I had a nasty burning chesty cough. Breakfast reappeared. I slept. I went to the race briefing, and slept in that too. I ate the pasta.
The weather in PE is fantastic in the Autumn. Coolish nights and warm balmy days.
Only I could not get warm during that day nor cool that night. The pasta gave some substance to my kneeling moments. My core was sorest of all. Vomiting is serious pilates. I got up on the Saturday, briefly, and took a seat at breakfast in the far corner away from my healthy friends. Morten, ueber biker and the senior Dane in Dubai, Stine, top coach and 2014 overall European IM amateur Champion, Finn whose experience of South Africa is second only to mine and whose performance consistently defeats me, Ben, IM virgin who has trained from fat boy to athlete under Chris Knight, Wisam, the living embodiment of why TriDubai is a good thing, Helen from AD, here to qualify having missed out by one place a couple of years ago, and Mark, former French foreign legionnaire whose book would be a best-seller. Morten asked: ‘Have you thought of Plan B?’ Reality struck home. Racing, let alone qualifying was now highly unlikely.
Half a bowl of porridge. Back to bed. Pathetic.
But I wasn’t ready to admit defeat so I racked my bike. I turned down the trip out to the traditional Pizza place for the last meal. The team bought me one home. Now the SA caring, hosting, welcoming gene was triggered and the house staff were plying me with fresh lemon in hot water, toast and marmite, tea, olbas oil, all things natural and a staggering amount of attention. I was avoiding medication because if I won, and somehow I still planned to win, then I would go through doping control. Who was I fooling?
Race night. Not good, the opposite, worse. But I made a race plan. I would get up and play the hand I’d been dealt. Plan B was unpalatable and involved a European race later in the season; Maastricht or Bolton. And I knew that I couldn’t be quite so well prepared for them, and that the European competition is stiffer, and that there wouldn’t be eighty (yes eighty at IMSA!) slots for Kona at those races, so they were far from
guaranteed. In quarantine corner with a temperature I forced a bit of porridge and three cups of coffee down a throat that did not want to swallow. I went down to the bike and put my etap batteries back on, calibrated the Power Meter, decided the tyres looked fine and didn’t add air - rough roads, less pressure, less fatigue - put a bottle on the back with 15 gels in it and clipped my shoes in. Everything was slow motion. Autopilot.
Back in my room I took hours putting on my wetsuit. It was heavy and thick. And awkward. Heavier and thicker and more awkward than it should have been. I was now trying desperately not to think about something that I did not want to think about.
Failure. I had told everyone that I would win. You can’t win without starting. So I took my own advice and thought only about the next fifteen minutes. Like the proverbial elephant IM is best ingested in bite sized chunks and for me the next fifteen minutes is a mouthful.
Plan. The plan was simple. Normally one tops up ones muscle glycogen stores in the few days before a race. For two days I had done the opposite with my body under stress fighting a chest infection/bronchitis/tertiary syphilis or something. Lets just call it ManFlu; an affliction that would put any female into ICU, but which we, the stronger sex, stoically deal with without whinging and crying, too much. So I didn’t have the stores that I needed to fuel me for a ten plus hour endurance race. But I did have fat. Even at less than five percent body fat I had stores. I estimated about 4kgs of ultra-high-octane top quality fat fuel in my body. That would have to do it. So now it was about operating in the zone where the fuel of choice is fat vice carbs. If I flicked over to predominantly carb burning I would bonk (run out of carbs/muscle glycogen/energy) and when that happens you stop. There’s one thing worse than a Did Not Start (DNS) and that is a DNF.
Race. I entered the water and swam. Half way down the mile long main straight I
was too cold, fighting the cough reflex constantly. I was looking up to sight the next buoy but hoping for sanctuary on a RIB. I had to constantly pull myself back to the ‘now’ rather than thinking about how this experiment might pan out. I knew that if I coughed I would keep coughing and that my tummy was sore and that coughing meant doubling over and doubling over when swimming in a cold southern ocean might not be a very good idea.
Don’t cough. Would Errol hear my cough?
Half way. Next fifteen minutes, don’t cough. The devil on one shoulder was saying you’ve done enough. Honour is even. Get our of the water. My competitive instinct was saying that it’s all downhill from here, just keep turning those heavy arms over and you will have completed the swim. And so it was. Out of the water and on to the bike.
Warmer now. HR ceiling set at 125bpm. HR alert buzzing on my watch. The wind was
behind and I rode the outleg on autopilot. Harder on the way back against a freshening
torrent and into the little ring to keep the HR under control. Then out again, the wind now strong and finally a slog of small gear minuscule progress back to T2 and the run. Less than 200w average. That is PZ1! Still going. My gel bottle empty and three more gels taken on top. 18 gels inside me. Yum. I didn’t look at the time at any point. That was not part of the plan. Just HR. Just 125bpm. No more. Running now. I felt like giving up, but I reminded myself that I always feel like giving up as I head out onto the run. That is normal. I ran aid station to aid station, using the beep of my watch to keep me at 125. Maximal Aerobic Function for a 55 year old is 125 (Google Dr. Phil Mafetone) so I should be able to hold this all day. And I did. The kms passed slowly, I saw Ben and Helen as they were going my way, but no one else. Stine and Finn must have crossed me four times but I had no capacity for multitasking, waving or even recognition. I was fully occupied by moving forward, staying on HR and getting there. Oh, and I smiled - it always makes me faster.
Self belief is a funny thing. I finished and still thought I might have won. You never know in Ironman. But I hadn’t. I was a country mile off the lead and almost surprised that four other nearly viagrans had somehow come home before me. The first two in my AG set new course records. These old buggers are getting quicker.
Today, post race I have never felt less fatigued in the muscles nor more frail overall. No tightness, no cramp, no pain walking downstairs. After an IM that is unheard of in my experience. But I am weak. And riding at low/no power didn’t make a huge difference to time. Finn, an athlete of similar age, build and type rode about six minutes faster but used 300 plus Training Stress Scores - sorry, technical stuff - to my 200. Wow! Ride easy folks; those very few extra minutes are going to be expensive on the run. My swim time was at most 2mins down on expectation, and the run was 3:50 or about 23 minutes slower than my best. All in all, being unwell cost me about 20-30 mins on this race. So even healthy I might have been in with a shout but there would have been no guarantees. The competition is just too good.
Stine raced to first place AG. Kona. Finn was two minutes off the podium and three minutes in front of Stine. Kona. Ben executed his first IM and logged a benchmark PB well inside 13 hours. Morten slowed up on the run having ridden the fastest bike split of
all of us, and will live to fight another day. Wisam came home happily with his third full finish. Helen struggled on the run and was a little outside the Kona slots but looks fired up to make her assault on a Kona qualification soon. And Mark, struggling from an old calf injury (is that what you call a bullet wound from Sarajevo?) decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retired half-way through the bike.
Warning. Racing ill is NOT recommended. Vomiting dehydrates. Endurance racing dehydrates. The first casualty could be kidney function. If you have illness below the neck, do not race.
Would I do it again? It is so hard and takes more courage than I have to go back on a big promise, to let hours, days, weeks and months of training go. I wasn’t up to that.
But with hindsight, and having failed to qualify, I would not do it again. A wise man said that fools learn from their own mistakes, clever people learn from mistakes made by others. I know that most of my readers are clever people.
And next? That’s that unpalatable plan B…
16 April 2018