Chasing Kona Part 3
Before you start reading, a little warning…. I ask you to be entrepreneurial and to invest time and intellect with absolutely no guarantee that you will get any return.
So if you opened this only because you want to find out what Ironman Tallin is like and whether you should try it next year I will truncate the next few pages for you: Great Race. Cold swim, fast bike, interesting but more than averagely demanding run. Do it. If you now read on I take no responsibility. The value of your investment might go down as well as up.
On the second lap of the four laps of the Tallinn marathon I ran in a wonderful, almost monsoonish downpour as the Summer thunder rumbled overhead. The finisher-pics snappers were zapping with full flash in the middle of an August afternoon, in an ancient medieval town on the edge of the Gulf of Finland, opposite Helsinki. The rubble on the roadside directed the flood into the racetrack and I found that I was running not only steeply uphill but also against the current. You don’t get that in Dubai. I had 14 kilometres in the bag and a paltry 28 left. ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning (Winston Churchill 1942).
Ironman racing is not about the 3.8 km swim, or the 180km bike - at least not directly. Many uber bikers and fish swimmers lose the race in the last ten kilometres of the day. Ironman racing is about how well you can race those ten. I think it’s a running race, with a long warmup. You must maintain pace in the last ten or the opposition will dance past, patting your bum in cheery, condescending encouragement (if they know you well) or with an anonymous internal, smug smile, behind the rictus of their own pain, if they are strangers. So it is the athlete who can preserve his energy until the last ten, the one who can repeatedly recover his stock of power through that long warmup who should almost always prevail. We have all heard of the great grinders on the bike, the Starykowicz’s, but are they consistent champions?
This is part three. Part one was a sorry tail of excuses, illness, confidence, and disappointment. If you haven’t read it trawl the TriDubai archives as there will be a dusty forgotten copy somewhere there. It is called IMSA 2018 PRR. Part two was a bucket list race that I entered on blind optimism and mindless hope. I loved it, but it did not deliver me to my goal: Kona Qualification and a ticket to the Big Island in October 2018. That report too will be in the TriDubai vault. Look for Lanzarote 2018 PRR. There will be a part four. But I haven’t written it yet.
Swim, Bike, and Run
Tallinn was Plan C. I failed in South Africa in April, and in Lanzarote in May. After Lanza (cool shortening of the name - you have to have done it to use it) I went home on an absurd high from the experience and started testing. My old friend, sports genius (scientist doesn’t even nearly cover it) and principle coach for the last eight years, Nick Tipper, answered my call and prescribed an investigative phase to see if I could try just once more without permanently damaging myself. Unlike the received wisdom (which came from every other qualified source) he did not say don’t. He said let’s see where you are physically and then make a decision. So we tested and unsurprisingly, after two fairly demanding IM in five weeks and the preceding six months of training, I was ‘fatigued’.
We used short tests so as not to exacerbate any injury that I was carrying. Mentally, of course, I was in denial. I’ve been shot and blown up so this didn’t seem such a big deal. I surfed the Ironman home page to compare the merits and demerits of Ironman Whistler in Canada, Maastricht in Holland, Bolton, UK, and finally Tallinn in Estonia. All of them would allow me an eight week lead into Kona, should I prevail. Tipps meanwhile stripped 50% of the work out of my Training Peaks plan and quietly monitored me as I returned to training. He analyzed the data and nudged me when I overdid it. I don’t often underdo it - he wasn’t so concerned about that. And so over four weeks, I built back into big work. As he didn’t say ‘stop!’ I took it as tacit agreement that I should persevere. A watershed moment came when he diagnosed dehydration as the cause of my ‘decoupling’ (Decoupling: the separation over time of power or pace and heart rate. The two should track each other and if they do not this is an indicator that aerobic endurance is compromised. ) on long rides and runs. So, typically, I jumped on the diagnosis and completely reorganized my fluid intake and nutrition strategies. I’ve been peeing ever since. The result: massive improvements on endurance sets, no matter what the Dubai Summer threw at me. I entered Tallinn. Caroline sighed. I love my wife.
I trained almost sensibly. I knew that my swim has been ‘average’ forever so I engaged Brett Hallam to give me eight one-on-one lessons. My pace per hundred went from 1.45 to 1.27 in six weeks. Of course, I could not maintain that pace for 38 repeats, but the new style was clearly faster and with time might be reflected in my racing. Tipps’ knife paired six hours off my weekly training load too, so I had more time to recover and improve my sleep.
Ironman Tallinn is a new race on the calendar. The organization was therefore not quite as slick as IMSA or Lanzarote. The printed athlete pack was at best a guide and it paid to keep one’s ear to the ground and ask if in doubt.
The water was cold. ‘Bruce Lees’ (Hard nips) cold. Despite a record hot Summer and endless sunny days, even this far North, the water varied by the day.
It was up to the wind, the locals told me. It blows away the warm water. At 0640 on Raceday it was 15.1degC. The Monday before it had been 5degC. I was so lucky! So I donned Finn Zwager’s wetsuit (mine had got lost in the post) which, after all, saw him to a great qualification, and went in early with the hour swimmers. Given that I’d been working so hard on my swim it was a fair shout.
Race tactics. One has two choices with the new safety-first Ironman policy of ‘rolling wave’ starts. You either go in early, get out early and ride a clear road, then run at least one lap before the course gets crowded. Or you go in late, enjoy the faster oxygenated water and bridge up throughout the swim gaining speed and time with every slower swimmer that you pass. Then you slingshot through the bike packs sticking firmly to the 25 second drafting rule but in fact drafting continuously as you pass bike after bike, again gaining speed in air that is all traveling in the right direction. It’s all within the rules but it sounds like cheating to me.
I went in early. I wanted to lead this race and win it my way.
Transition was quick. There were three lanes, one to the boys tent, one to the girls tent and a third between the two with no tent for those who weren’t sure. There was no one in the middle lane so I ran down it whipping the wetsuit off on the move. It was quick and easy - (to fold carefully, wash out with clean water, do the zip up, pack with talcum powder and place gently in the bike bag - Thanks Finn, promised to look after it, didn’t pee in it) - and I really didn’t stop moving. Round the transition to the bike with carpet over cobbles. Cold toes. I had no idea of my time in the water or transition. I pressed the buttons on the watch but I don’t look at it. All the other frequent flyer bikes (AWA. The All World Athlete Programme is really a loyalty programme for those who race IM branded races) were still on the rack. They probably went in late…
I shot out of transition in 2mins something and onto a clear, barricaded, narrow labyrinth of early bike route. There are lots of technical turns in the first two kms as you get clear of the outskirts of greater Tallinn (which is only about the size of the Marina in Dubai) and I was glad not to have masses of bikes around me as I negotiated tram tracks and curbs. All this was beautifully marshalled by the locals.
The volunteers were fantastic, (if a little overfed. I got the impression that hot Summers are a novelty in Estonia. Pasty very white legs dropped down from shorts worn curiously Simon Cowell high. Boys and girls. And as age increased the legs got shorter and wider. Many people in Tallinn seem to exercise little, eat a lot and moderate their weight with cigarettes - model style. I do miss those days - I wasn’t a model but I did smoke. The young are all decorated, mostly with their own designs. You can spot a house where the builder had an idea and decided to go without the architect. The ink in Tallinn is similar. A little bit homemade, almost prison style. Get a tattoo but save money by avoiding an ‘artist’). I didn’t make these observations at the time, that came later.
But back to the race and I was now in my element. The roads widened and I started to pick off the quicker swimmers who were less confident on two wheels. This race was make or break. I had failed twice and there was no time before Kona (nor physical capacity) for a plan D so I put my head down - literally so as to be as aero as possible - and hit the numbers from my race plan. I had decided to race at 74% of FTP and that meant no slacking. Push, pull, breathe, watch the HR and hold the power. An extra 10% overpowered on the uphills and 10% underpowered on the downhills. When the race is fast ride easy when the race is slow ride hard. Watching the numbers. Cycling in circles with feet pulling through the bottom of the pedal stroke - imagine trying to scrape dog poo off the bottom of your shoe - engaging the hamstrings to pull all the way up with heels in the cups and then pushing over the top into the natural quad-driven downstroke.
I practice this religiously with friends twice a week on the Al Qudra desert track. It works.
90kms (halfway) went by in 2 hours and 22 minutes. I was within my power window and fuelling well. I peed a lot. My fuel and hydration game was good. A thunderstorm threatened from the South. Winds under clouds are never predictable but so far this had not been a factor. I cruised good tarmac on fully-cleared, traffic-free roads. There were bikes ahead but on the turnarounds I could see that I was still picking them off one by one. The pros were not too far ahead either. No one overtook me. My legs hurt. I have never raced quite this hard for a full distance on the bike. The storm broke and I was in unfamiliar conditions. Fast roundabouts on well filled tyres and lots of standing water. No catseyes in this part of the world though. Long winters mean snowploughs and snowploughs scrape up catseyes. So the surprises were few and I kept rubber between me and the road. But I slowed up in the latter half of the third hour and used the wind and rain to recover and refuel. Water shot up from the back wheel and my trisuit felt wet and gritty around my bum, and with my face between my hands and only six inches above the front wheel I was breathing force fed dirty water up my nose. With two laps completed I headed, worryingly with no one in view in front or behind, back to town. I asked questions by hand signal on route as I rode. The marshals pointed and shouted. I was not used to racing alone but as I charged into T2 I had enough Kms on the clock to know that I had ridden a fair race.
And then I ran. Except that someone had, as usual, stolen my legs and replaced them with wooden ones. Great big lumpy useless appendages. I walked through T2 always moving forward. Pulling socks and shoes on and depositing my bike kit in the bag drop. The stiffness slowly eased and I jogged into the bottom of A HILL! about 20m out of T2. It was a big long straight Palaniesque (for the Kona crowd) hill. The sky was overcast and I was not overheated so I took a deep breath and increased my cadence. I thought of Chris Knight (the unstoppable Jedi with whom I have trained and raced for years); of Stine Mollebro whose staccato 90rpm cadence carried her to a 3:20 marathon and the top step of the African Championships; her qualification this year, and; of Finn, who always overtakes me on the run and also taps out a high cadence despite being five foot eighteen inches tall. Lucy Woollacott. Qualifiers. High cadence. The hill passed. I stretched my legs and headed down the far side with long easy strides. One km done. Only 41 left. This is OK! The ten km lap passed and I amused myself with the route which was ‘varied’. Not what had been on the map. Because someone hadn’t told the organizers about the roadworks, or that the trams had to keep running. So they put in a metal bridge (uppety bloody up again) and a sluice run by volunteers that meant that you took a slightly different route each lap depending on whether the tram had passed, and whether it was a modern tram (hissssss) or an older one (rattle, rattle, clank). Interesting. I did maths too. Working out percentages passed and left to run. On getting to five km thinking ‘I only have to do that eight and a bit times - this is OK’ and then at 8kms ‘ I only have to do this five and a bit times’. If you keep doing that you soon get to 21.1 and say ‘that, just that, just once more’. Curbs and ramps, evil cobbles and extra hills (roadworks again), floods and rivers, and then the sun came out and dried up all the rain and I was back in familiar territory. Hot, miserable and facing the last ten kms. All the while I have a mantra that I recite to keep my technique tight. I start from my toes and check in on my body with each stride. Looking for aches and pains and potential disasters. It all hurt evenly throughout. That’s good. More intensely with each passing kilometer but in a nice, balanced, all over the way. I had planned short walks infeed stations to get the fuel in my mouth as eating and drinking while running tends to entail imbibing through nose and ears, and I kept them short. At one point I gave in to discomfort and took two paces of walk after I had finished a drink. I chastised myself that family and friends would see the slowdown and the Whatsapps would start: ‘I think he’s in trouble’, ‘what does the tracker say?’, ’why is he slowing?’, ‘wish we had someone there to report back” etc.
My energy comes from four sources. First physical: sleep, nutrition, training.
Second, mental: I had set a goal for this year. To do the double. To qualify for and race both the World Championships of 70.3 and Kona. Third, emotional. Caroline, my family, and my friends have supported me throughout this part of my journey. I cannot but give my best to do otherwise would be to let them/you down even more than myself. And fourth and finally, spirit. I get energy from trying to do the right thing. It means not drafting. Not obstructing. Not cutting a corner. It means saying please and thank you at the simplest level, even if you really want to curl up and die. The hot, bored, wet volunteer smiles. And so do I, inside.
So I entered the last 10 km (that hill and the steel bridge for the seventh time as both sit on an out and back section of the run FFS, i.e. Fitter Faster Stronger) with an enormous energy. I fuelled to the bitter end; although my body was threatening to reject the high octane diet of sugar and water - farting and burping. I used all the stored conditioning of a long, long season. I was nearly at muscular failure; think of an old tree with ivy wrapped around the trunk and you will have a fairly accurate view of my legs at this point. Coming off the flexible downhill of the steel bridge and hitting the harder ground of the muddy road at the bottom was like getting off a trampoline and trying to jump up and down! I had no bounce left.
On the mental approach, I thought of what I had said (to anyone who would listen) I would do. My goal: To win and go to Kona. I realized that if I kept up the pace I would complete in around ten hours, which would be competitive in the old man’s division. I thought too of Caroline, Max and Mimi and the optimalTRI guys and all my friends in TriDubai, at work and around the world. I knew that some of them would be following online and expending their time to be there for me. And that engaged my emotions and rocket-fuelled my legs to move a little faster. I pushed each knee forward by an extra half centimeter with each step. I lifted my head a little higher and targeted the next runner on the now crowded course.
So I didn’t slow much (of course I probably did but it felt like I kept it up) and after finishing I checked my watch to see that I’d come in at around ten hours and two minutes. I had to be in with a shout. I wandered about feeling a bit nauseous and wondering if I should sit or stand or lie but I failed to come up with an answer. About 20 minutes of mindless meandering in an area the size of a tennis court found me ten meters from the finish and an official with a phone. Most Tallinnians don’t speak English, but she got to a picture that said my name and ‘Category Position… 1’. I spent another thirty minutes aimlessly crisscrossing the now packed tennis court wondering if the ‘into the water late’ crowd would turn up and beat my time. Finally bored, I collected my bike and bags and rode back to the hotel none the wiser; to find 422 WhatsApp messages.
This was a better performance. Why? I have long said that you cannot overtrain but you can under-recover. My learned triathlete coach friends don’t all agree with me, but I think I am onto something. We need to plan our recovery, not our training. Get the recovery right and the body, regardless of miles on the clock, reacts beautifully. I see it all the time in optimal-THERAPY where the awesome clinicians - yes I have an interest - shun surgery and pharmacy wherever possible because they know that given the right rest and stimuli the body can repair the most dire injuries.
Nick Tipper’s intervention was vital. His dehydration diagnosis immediately felt right. I’m sponsored by Pure Sports Nutrition (NZ) and I guzzled their clean, plant-based products before during and after every training set. In the big block that means three times a day. I was less comfortable cutting down the work under his guidance, but he let me build that back again in an orderly fashion. I did nothing that I would not have suggested to another athlete, but sometimes you need someone you trust to tell you.
Coaches need coaches. I recommend anyone who is insane (Einstein defined this as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’) to engage a coach.
Sleep as a foundation. We often overvalue those who undervalue sleep. Stupid. I will target eight hours of sleep (a day!) between now and Port Elizabeth and then onto Kona. It’s Summer in Dubai so I will train at night, but not too often, and I will offset it with sleep wherever possible. It will be challenging.
You all contributed to this. I loved holding that trophy up, hoping that my kind random stranger would take a good photo that I could show off to all of you.
However, these races are not destinations. They are intermediate stations, large and small, on the mainline to my vision of a longer, happier, healthier, meaningful life. I have longer-term goals, big stations on the journey, some of which are a very long time in the future. I will be fit and strong for as long as I can, extending my health span as far as it will go. 106 seems like a good number, but only if I am healthy. I see no point in being kept alive festering in an old- peoples’ home with incontinence pants, a fading set of memories and a poor view.
Without you I would have no reason to do this, there would be no happiness, just short-term pleasure that we can get just as easily from sex, alcohol or chocolate. I’m not knocking them, pleasure is important, just saying that it doesn’t normally lead to happiness. That, the science tells us, comes from relationships, and good relationships underpin good health too.
So thank you for the Facebook posts, comments, and reactions - humbling but so motivating. And the WhatsApp messages - which I have finally read through, with a smile and an occasional lump in my throat. Thank you for the kind words, and for training with me.
And for the trust.
August, 6th 2018