Sunday, December 5, 2010


That sounds like such a clunky word. I got onto an online thesaurus and did a search to see if there were any better words. The English language is rich in synonyms and I thought there would definitely be a more elegant word to describe the same concept. No dice. Perhaps that says something about our culture.

Anyway back to the subject. I've had some strong realisations recently in a whole range of areas of my life, and I've had a paradigm shift about what it means to be competitive in racing. A paradigm shift means seeing something that you've been looking at in one way for a long time in a totally new light.  I use the phrase because I like it and I'm showing off.

Previously I tended to think about being competitive as an aggressive state of mind, actively trying to beast the people around you, get higher placements, get faster times, get better results. Being competitive was all about the results of the race - better results meant you had been more competitive and worse ones meant you were just being a loser.

This didn't really sit very comfortably with me - for one I didn't like the overly aggressive stance this portrayed, and also it meant that I could do a strong race but if the results were lower than my expectations, then I would view the race as a failure (and consequently myself a failure, following on from my last post).

I've realised that this is actually completely wrong and totally misses the point of what it means to be truly competitive.

I was relatively academic at school and got some good results. The school I went to was not known for its academic strength so I was a big fish in a little pond. There was one report card at the end of the year that I particularly remember, and it was for Latin. The teacher was a young woman and she really struggled to control a class full of puberty age boys, who were merciless at jumping on any sign of weakness. I remember at least one class where she was crying at the end - not one of our proudest moments.

Basically she got bullied and although I did not play an active part in this, I think I still must have contributed to the misery she experienced in the short time before she left the post.

This is because of my report card. I remember the 2 numbers distinctly: a 1 and a 2. The 1 meant I came first in my class, and therefore first in my year. The 2 meant that out of 5 I got a 2 for effort. 2 was the lowest you could get - they didn't give 1s for some reason. Great so that means I didn't have to work hard and still 'won' right?

Wrong. I think that is the saddest statement - it says that I had a talent and I couldn't be bothered to do anything with it. I imagine that teacher writing out my card - here is her star pupil and yet he couldn't give a damn. On top of everything else, how depressing.

Competitiveness is not about being at the front of the field, competitiveness is about competing against your greatest opponent: yourself.

It does not matter where you came in the field, it doesn't matter what your time was, the one and only thing that truly matters is did you give everything you had to give? This is actually a big relief, but also a big challenge. The big relief is that you no longer have to worry about external (superficial) results. The big challenge is that if you want to be competitive then by definition it is going to be hard - very hard. It means going beyond yourself to a place you thought you could never reach.

What is great about this, is that everybody in the race has the opportunity to express their competitiveness to the full. It may be finishing the race is a huge step for you, it may be beating a PB, it may be a high placement, but it is not the result. It is the manner in which you race the race.

Take Chrissie Wellington. In Arizona recently she won the race. But that meant nothing - she could win the race by coasting through with a moderate level of effort. However she is truly competitive - she squeezed every ounce out of herself and beat the world record. The reality for her is she wants to beat all the men too. One of these days she might just do that.

Do you remember Usain Bolt in the Olympics? Yeah sure you do, but do you remember those qualifiers where he got bullet fast times, metres ahead of everyone else, but he basically coasted the final 20 metres or so? It just seemed quite bland, in fact sometimes it really hacked me off - what we really wanted to see was him giving everything he had to give, competing against himself to provide his own personal optimal effort. Thankfully we did actually get to see that in the finals and it was truly something to behold.

OK a controversial point now. Sergei Bubka beat the world record in the pole vault 35 times in his career and was repeatedly voted the world's best athlete. Does anyone see what's wrong with this picture? The reason why he beat the world record so many times, was that he always did just enough to raise the record by a centimetre or 2. That way he got paid more money. Now you can't blame the man for that - he was doing his job and he was doing it damn well.

But the world's best athlete? Absolutely not. The truth is we never saw the best of Sergei Bubka - what would have happened if he had reached deep down inside himself and tried to give the absolute best he could give, and he did that time and again? For one, we would not have seen 35 world records, but I bet we would have seen something even more spectacular - a Beamon-esque jump of breathtaking proportions. Did we ever see Bubka being truly competitive? I doubt it.

The other side of competitiveness is showing yourself what you are made of and marking out your territory. This is where your opposition come into the equation. This seems to me a pretty primeval concept similar to survival of the fittest. By racing to your fullest you are marking out your ground and anyone who threatens to walk on that ground better have a damn good reason for it. Anyone who comes close, you put your foot down and say Nah, that's not going to happen, not on my watch buddy. It is your duty to do the very best you can do, and that does mean beating people.

I reckon this is something more for the end of the race. Competing against yourself is what you do for 95% of the time out there - you are trying to get from A to B in the fastest time you can with the tools you have on race day. But when it comes to the end, then it's more about beating the competitors around you. Doing this will push you beyond what you think is possible and take great mental strength.

I think this is powerful stuff, and it has consequences. Firstly I don't think you can be truly competitive in all your races. You'll burn yourself out. Some races you may want to practice different strategies - nutrition, clothing, pacing, etc. Some races you may do for fun. And then some races you turn it on. But once you have committed yourself to be truly competitive, you know it's going to hurt, it's going to take everything you've got and if it works out, it's going to be bloody memorable.

The results, the times do not matter, but you will know when you've done it right. A few indicators will be your pounding heart rate, your gasps for breath and your feeling of elation at having dug right deep down inside yourself for the last ounce of available effort. And you should be proud of yourself too, because you have done something special, something which maybe even the guy (or gal) up the front of the race did not do. You competed.

The image at the top of this post is Haile Gebrselassie racing Paul Tergat in the Sydney 2000 Olympic 10K Final. 2 people fully committed and competing to the best of their abilities. The youtube video of the final stages of the race is stirring stuff.

If you have understood this post, then you will recognise that there were 2 winners at the end of this race.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Moth To A Flame

I wrote a while back about why I do this sport and I talked about a lot of the positive effects that the sport has had on my life.  I stand by that, and I strongly believe that triathlon and long distance triathlon in particular has basically changed my life.  I won't go back over those points now.

Today I'm going to talk about the flip side of the coin, because I'm not being honest with you if I just tell you about how great the sport is, and how I'm so great because I do it.  So much of what I read about triathlon is all balls to the wall, HTFU, MTFU, inspiration and everything is just like totally amazing yeah.  Awesome has to be the most overused word in triathlon circles, and I hear myself saying it over and over again!

So what are the other less glamorous reasons I do triathlon?

I broke up with a girl about 4 years ago, or in actuality what happened was she walked out of my life without a word and it took me 3 weeks before I managed to convince her to meet with me and talk about it.  We had been together 15 months when this happened and I was very much in love.  I was completely emotionally wrecked and the physical pain of this lasted about 6 weeks.

I'm not telling this story to gain any kind of sympathy, it is just to put what I have to say in context.  The truth of the matter is that she gave me a gift, and that gift was a realisation that I had to make significant changes in my life.  If I think about the long road towards better mental health that started when she left me, I am very grateful indeed for what happened.  She's married with a baby boy now and I give her joy of her new life.

I had been running and doing marathons for a couple of years already, and the first thing I did was join a running club - I thought it would be good for the social aspect and also I threw myself into it to numb some of the pain.  Gradually I got more and more involved in endurance running.  The coach there told me that I was a middle distance runner - I had strong speed but not great endurance.  He told me to focus on 3k, 5k, 10k and leave the marathon for later years.  He was right but I thought stuff that, I want a real challenge.

This process brought my marathon time down from about 3:30 at the time, to 3:02.  I remember going back to my coach one day after running a 1:22 Half at Silverstone and his comment was an all time classic in my book: "Wow, that's almost like real running".  That guy knew how to motivate me!

So what was actually going on here?  What was happening was that I had no real self esteem - I did not fundamentally believe that I was a good person and that people would like me for who I am.  And therefore I trained hard, because subconsciously I thought that if I could get good times then people would respect me and that I would feel good about myself.  And this worked.  For a short period of time.

The glow after a good race would die off after a while, and so I was pushed on to try bigger and harder events.  I started triathlon, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to Ironman.  Crossing the finish line at Ironman Western Australia in 2007 was an incredibly emotional moment for me and that made me feel good for a long time - that was the biggest and best hit I have ever experienced, bar none. I had found a legal and socially acceptable drug and I wanted more.

And so I have to face up to this.  The truth is that I also do triathlon to try and gain respect from my peer group and to try and believe that I am a good person because I can cover 140.2 miles faster than many people who try.  I have to face up to the fact that a very large part of why I am trying to qualify is just so that I can get a bigger hit.  In some place in my mind I think that if I can get into Hawaii, then everything will be alright, I'll feel good about myself forever more and people will like me because of what I have achieved.

This is very poor reasoning.

The truth is I have not been getting out the door to train that much at the moment.  And this is not because I am weak and unmotivated and depressed.  No, this is because I am growing as a person and getting healthier and I am building REAL self respect for myself, not the empty self respect that comes from a fast time.

You should know that I am not giving up.  I am taking my bike to Cape Town in January and I am going to be living, working and training there for 2 and a half months.  Then I will come home and shortly after fly to Utah, where I will compete and give everything I have to give.  But it may be that I don't take it too seriously this time.  It may be I goof off some workouts and go do something different instead.  It may be that I let go of striving for Kona for the time being.  My reasons are wrong and I need time to think about that.  Maybe Kona's in my future when my reasons are right, maybe not.

Ultimately I love being outside doing crazy shit with my mates, so I'm still going to do big rides, big runs, big races.  But from now on I will only do these things if I'm having fun.  If it's to try and prove something to myself then I may as well pack up all my stuff and sell it on ebay and use the money to pay for therapy.

And actually by the way, yes, I do see a therapist.  And starting that process 2 years ago was the best decision I ever made.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Anatomy of a Crash

I'm hacked off, really hacked off this morning.  My Powertap has been reading low power for several weeks and not just because I'm a jessy who would be better off considering cheerleader school rather than trying to ride a bike.  No, there was definitely something off, so I sent it away for maintenance.

And then the news comes back this morning that the electrics need replacing and this will be a paltry £400 thank you very much as I am out of the 1 year warranty (I've had the PT 2 years).  That's actually not much off the price of a brand new hub (c. £550).  Winner.

I got all angry with CycleOps and thought, damn it, these things are so temperamental and I've hardly had the sodding thing 2 minutes, etc, etc.  And then I remembered.  Oh yeah.  When did I start to get issues?  Er that would have been right after I fell off my bike a few months back and redistributed half the skin off my hip somewhere in Surrey.  Not only that, but I further damaged my already damaged coach, and may well have been the straw that broke the camel's back, meaning he couldn't compete with his well earned slot in Kona this year.

Jack was close behind me as I went into a sharp roundabout too fast on wet roads and with a poorly executed racing line.  In the matter of seconds this is what happened to my wallet:

  • £0 New Powertap plastic cap (thankyou Torq!)
  • £400 New Powertap components
  • £25 Powertap courier costs
  • £75 Repair Winter Jacket (zip and elbow hole)
  • £80 New Rear Derailleur
  • £35 New Bar Tape, Cables & Fitting
  • £40 Ripped Unrepairable Bib Shorts
  • £25 Medical Supplies

Total damage £680.  Ouch - that hurts more than the first salt water swab on the road rash.

This is an expensive sport, and I've made my peace with that.  I spend a large part of my income on getting to where I want to be.  Equipment, flights, accommodation, race fees, coaching, gym membership, sports nutrition products.  I don't want to total up what I spend in a year.  I know it's a huge wadge of cash and I'm damn lucky that I have the opportunity to do what I do.  And I derive a lot of pleasure from the sport, but what really gets me is the bunch of cash I spend just to keep me on the road, money that doesn't seem to get me any closer to my goal.

So I think, maybe I'm missing the point here.  Maybe all the gadgets and gizmos are just snake oil, crutches that make me think I'm training smarter, harder, better.  Maybe I should just go back to basics and just train.

In other parts of my life I strive to reduce clutter - a simple work life, a simple home life, get rid of the junk, focus on what's important, but when it comes to triathlon, I let the sport take free reign.  It concerns me that the products we buy often end up owning us, and we are no longer in control.

Get the biggest mortgage you can afford, then you have to fill your big house with lots of big stuff, and you need a big car to sit outside your big house, and you have to live a big lifestyle to go with your big house.  And you need a big job to pay for all your big stuff and before you know it, you're no longer in control.  You're the hamster in the cage running on the wheel to stay exactly where you are.

OK I've gone off the rails a bit here.  Getting all philosophical because my bank balance is dropping faster than my pace towards the end of the ironman marathon.  I guess I'm thinking should I go old school for the winter and train without the stats, or do I take the hit on the belief that it will make me a better rider in 6 months time?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Great South Run 2010

Huw texted me last night to say he's sick and won't be running today - shame I reckon he would have torn up this course in the perfect race conditions down in Portsmouth. The alarm went off at 5AM to give me plenty of time to get the trains down south. I didn't fancy driving and the ensuing chaos on arrival with 23,000 competitors entered. With Huw having bailed, I had a damn good think about jacking it in too and staying in my nice warm bed. Sod it, step up to the plate monkey boy. HTFU. And other such rubbish - I slunk my sorry ass out of bed.

Conditions on arrival were ideal: cool, sunny, no wind. The course is more or less totally flat. Goal was a sub 60 with the additional goals of pushing hard into the red zone, maintaining strong mental form throughout and being competitive right through to the finish. Sub 60 is a tall ask on the best of days, and we're well into the off season. This was going to be interesting.

Breakfast involved an apple, a pear, 2 cups of coffee from various train stations and 2 croissants during the 3 hours to start time. My that's the breakfast of champions Howard. Hey it's only a 10 miler right? What could possibly go wrong?

I started close to the front. It took 10s to cross the start after the gun, 10s which they did not take off my official race time the buggers - I'm going with my watch time. Even so, as always there were a bunch of muppets up there who had seeded themselves in totally the wrong place. I looked over at a guy in a devil costume, sporting a foolish grin and carrying a plastic trident in front of me.  I won't repeat what I thought.  Maybe this is not such a bad thing - it meant my first 2 miles were a little slow rather than being crazy adrenaline induced fast, and also meant I was overtaking people throughout the race. After mile 1 nobody came past me.

I settled into a good rhythm and felt strong. Miles 2-6 felt fine with a decent pace. I noticed my auto lap mile function on my GPS watch (Garmin 310XT) seemed to be a number of metres down on the mile markers, and this got more pronounced throughout the race. My final distance showed 315 metres over 10 miles. The course is accurate so don't know what the hell was going on with the watch.

After the 6 mile marker I had to start really focusing - I knew if I could get to the 8 mile marker in good shape, I'd be able to push home. At this point another runner asked me what I was looking for and I said sub 60. Me too, he said, and this is my 6th attempt. Good luck mate, it's going to be tough, I replied as cheerfully as I could.

As it happened we ran together to the finish and encouraged each other when it got tough. Usually I don't like someone hanging on my shoulder but I was glad to have this guy there. We had to catch runners ahead of us - holding position was tempting but would just not be good enough, and we slowly bridged from one runner to the next.

At the 9 mile marker I felt pretty rough but my running partner was pushing on and shouting encouragement. I practised another mental technique (I'll cover this in my next post), clearing the mind - I relaxed, focused on my breathing, on my rhythm and just staying with my new running partner. Disassociate from the pain - not far to go. With 800m left he started to breathe really heavily and let out a couple of groans. Keep With It! I shouted, Keep With It! He immediately settled down.

I'm kind of embarrassed about the next bit, but my bowels weren't feeling too great and I had a Paula moment in my running shorts. Nothing to do but keep going. Sorry, I know that's Too Much Information, but hell this is my race report and next time I need to remember to make better breakfast choices!! Besides I reckon I'm kinda badass for pushing so hard this had to happen.

And finally the finishing straight with a runner close ahead. I had no real desire for a sprint finish but there was my running partner / mobile support crew shouting Go On, Take Him! Gee thanks, because you know what, I feel real energetic right now!!  HTFU Howard, HTFU.

I began to wind it up. I came past him and made a few yards, but hang on, Damn, I kicked too soon - I was tying up! I looked back and sure enough here's hero boy coming back at me strong. I kicked again with just metres to go and we crossed the line together - not sure who took the photo finish, and not sure anyone cared. I was totally spent and am pretty sure I couldn't have gone any harder with my current level of fitness.

59:17 with all goals achieved. I maintained a strong mental attitude throughout, I practised positive self talk and clearing the mind, I dug deep and endured some good old fashioned red zone pain and stayed competitive right to the finish line. Oh yeah, and did I mention I shat myself?  Actually that goal wasn't on the list, it was just an added bonus.

Average Pace 5:56 per mile, 3:41 per km
Average HR 179

85th Overall
34th Amateur
7th M35-39
14,924 finishers

Pace Breakdown
Mile Split HR
Mile 1 6:00 166
Mile 2 6:04 175
Mile 3 5:41 178
Mile 4 5:25 180
Mile 5 5:43 181
Mile 6 5:42 183
Mile 7 5:55 182
Mile 8 5:56 183
Mile 9 5:57 183
Mile 10 5:51 185
315m 0:58 186

Mind Games Pt 3: Self Talk

It seems I've been thinking about this post for weeks, so I decided it was time to get a grip and put it down on paper - this one is about Self Talk. Whether we like it or not, all of us have an internal dialogue going on telling us how we feel about ourselves, our plans, ambitions, our likes, our dislikes. This self talk shapes our world view and how we perceive ourselves within that world.

For the most part it is unconscious and we often do not take time out to analyse the internal voice or try to take control of it. The voice is the product of our past and upbringing, and can define the very essence of who we are. The voice can be positive, self affirming, encouraging, but equally it can be damaging, limiting and blinkered.

It is important to listen to this voice and assess its impact on your life. If you are often talking to yourself in negative terms then you would do well to make a strong effort to change this. However this is not a self therapy session, but more a look at what I can do to improve specific performance.

The point to take away is that we can change what we say to ourselves and by changing this, we can have a direct impact on our mental outlook come race day and our performance in the race.

First and foremost, do you really believe you can achieve your goal? There is a very simple way to test this. Write down your goal in a simple sentence. For me this would be something along the lines of: I will qualify for Hawaii in Ironman Utah next May. Now stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye and state your goal aloud. It is important that you say this aloud and not just in your mind. Gauge your reaction - it is surprisingly easy to assess how much conviction you have in your words.

Looking back to last year, the first time I tried this, I did not believe myself. I wanted to believe but deep down I didn't. By race day I would say I was 90% convinced but not 100%. I try this now and I do believe - it is a firm conviction and I am willing to take whatever steps are necessary.

If you feel yourself less than 100% then you need to take charge and improve that internal voice. In fact we need to take charge even if we do believe - there's more to it than simple confidence. What are the specific steps to take?

The visualization techniques I have already discussed are very useful here and you can use these in conjunction with the following suggestions. The first step is writing an Ultimate Intention Statement (UIS). I give full credit for this to my friend Robby in this post. I'll also link to the youtube video showing how Dirk Bockel has used this technique to great effect.

The UIS is a succinct statement of what you will do on race day and how you will feel as you achieve your goals and dreams. You will read this statement regularly (daily is good if you can manage this, and again aloud is best). What will happen is that you are changing your mind to truly believe that your desired outcome will actually become reality - it will not be a surprise on race day, it will be a deep felt conviction that will give you the strength to prepare in the manner you need to prepare and to execute accordingly, to overcome the inevitable obstacles that will rear their ugly heads on the way. You may hit setbacks but because of your belief you will handle them and they will not get the better of you.

Belief is important, because you do not suddenly become a Hawaii qualifier on race day - you need to believe it long before race day and become that person months before. It is what we do now, today, that determines what we will do when the start gun fires.

Ok so you have your UIS and you are stating it aloud to yourself on a regular basis - what else can you do? For your visualization sessions, you can write scripts for scenarios to practice, whether they be simply sections of the race, or how you will cope in adverse conditions.

Also, assess your feelings from your B & C races, even your hard training sessions and be vigilant for negative feedback. Pay attention to how you can change negativity to lessons to learn and areas to focus on.

Last weekend I did a half marathon in Dorset on the Jurassic Coast. It started with 3 miles on a shingle beach and then proceeded to take me over 4 brutal climbs with equally precipitous descents. Sure there was some stunning scenery and glorious sunshine, but you tend not to be thinking that as you are reduced to a walk with your heart rate firmly in the red zone.

It was hard and afterward I realised 2 things. Firstly my capacity to endure pain needs to be improved - I found it too easy to back off when it began to really hurt. And secondly my competitive spirit is not as strong as it could be. I dropped 3 places in the final flat half mile as I wasn't prepared to dig deep and truly didn't care about my final placing. That's all very well in an unimportant 'fun' race in the off season, or actually, no it's not very well at all - it's dangerous to get into bad habits. Now I realise these weaknesses and now I can build them into my various preparations.

To wrap up, be conscious of your internal dialogue and strive to make it a positive and strengthening voice. Often our limitations are not real, they are self imposed by our own belief systems. Take charge.

Now it's time for me to take a dose of my own medicine. I'm writing this on the train to Portsmouth where I will be doing the Great South Run in about 2 hours time. After the jump, it'll be the race report..

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mind Games Pt 2: Visualization

I'm writing a series on mental preparation techniques to assist me in my build up for my A race next year.  This comes from a realization that this is an area I have not put enough effort into in the past, and also that it is an area where I feel I can gain a significant boost in race day performance.

My plan is to have a maximum of 5 simple yet effective techniques that I can focus on and practice over the next 8 months.  For me these techniques must be clear and easily practiced - if they are poorly defined or too insubstantial then I won't use them.  If there are too many, then I'll lose focus - I think it's too easy to get sucked into reading lots of articles with differing opinions on how to train and you end up with no clear direction.  I want to clearly set down exactly what I will use and how I will use them.

Today's post is all about visualization, and indeed this skill is the corner stone of solid mental preparation.  It is a skill that you need to nurture and develop, just like an efficient swim stroke, or a smooth pedal action.  The theory behind this is that repeated imaging of yourself succeeding in competition, or handling difficult incidents, coping with race day emotions or performing complex manoeuvers, will improve your ability to effectively execute come race day.  I don't think there's anything particularly controversial about that and any athlete at the top of their game will be using various visualization techniques regularly.

My feeling is that visualization is critical in skill and emotion intensive sports like tennis or golf, where at the top levels the difference between winning and losing is less about physical prowess and much more mental acumen and the ability to cope under short bursts of high level stress.  Endurance triathlon is not so demanding in either of those areas, but visualization still has a very important role to play.

In actuality, a lot of us who are focused on strong improved performances will already be visualizing on a regular basis but probably in a less structured manner.  I find I do this a lot on my runs - I'm constantly running through scenarios of me on race day in various guises.  Typically these are centred around the finish where I am powering through to the finish, probably burning up some competitor.  This is great but actually not that useful - the chances are there will not be someone beside me at the finish, and also this is just one small, mostly inconsequential, aspect of the race and my result will have been decided a lot earlier in the day.

So down to specifics - what constitutes an effective visualization training regime?  Well there are 2 main elements here: relaxation and visualization itself.

You need time, space, quiet and a relaxed body in order to practice imaging, and so the first skill to learn is how to put yourself into a state that is most conducive to this.  Imaging is about taking yourself out of the present and putting yourself into the competitive arena.  A number of books will talk about meditation, and if you have experience with that then you're one up on the game.  I have some very limited experience with it - I think I get put off by the term - it seems so serious and mystical, something which I'm unlikely to do regularly.  So I'm not going to use that term - instead I'm just going to call it simply relaxation.  Now that's something I believe I can do regularly and it doesn't sound too airy-fairy or 'out there'.

Relaxation is another skill that improves with practice.  The essential technique is to get some space and time to yourself - you can start with just 5 mins and you'll be looking at growing this process up to about 30 mins.  It helps if you have a calming room to do this in - one that is free from clutter, or any form of distraction.  Sit in a comfortable chair, or your yogic lotus position if you so wish. Close your eyes.  Breathe deeply and be very conscious of the breath coming into your body and being exhaled again.  On each breath feel a wave of relaxation flow through your body.  Count slowly from 10 down to 1 and with each number feel yourself reach a new level of relaxation.

At this stage, be very much in the present and don't worry about any thoughts in your mind.  You're not trying to clear them just yet - just accept whatever thoughts are there but let them pass too.  Now focus on your right foot and as you breath out feel your toes and foot relax, and then on the next breath feel it relax more.  Once again, after a third breath, feel it relax again.  Now do the same 3 breath technique for your right calf, and then your right quads.  Really think about the muscles, what they would feel like if they were tensed up and feel the tension flowing out of them.  Repeat for your left leg.

Now your glutes.  Your abs.  Your chest.  Your right hand, the lower arm, the upper arm.  Repeat on the left.  Your shoulders, really relax your shoulders.  Your neck.  Now your face, feel like the tension is slipping away from your forehead, your eyes, your mouth and then your ears.

Now your whole body is relaxed but there's one final stage.  Imagine your whole body is a balloon filled with water.  Let that water settle in all your body and sink into your chair.  As you exhale really let that water sink deep down.  And then over your next few exhalations, imagine that water flowing slowly out and your body slowly deflating.  You should now be pretty relaxed.  This may take a little time to start off with, but as you practice it, you will be able to get yourself to this state quicker.  You may find some soothing music helps with this process.

If you're time pressured or feel this is a bit too happy hippy for you, then just settle yourself and do some deep breathing before jumping into the visualization.

In order to effectively develop imaging skills then you need to know what works best for you personally - this differs from person to person.  Do you experience images primarily by sight, sound, touch or emotion - what sensory modes allow you to fully experience an image?  The likely answer will be a mix of the above, but one element is usually stronger than the others.  For example with myself, visuals are very strong and emotions are very muted.  Auditory and touch cues are somewhere in the middle.

Once you know this information then you can focus on your primary sensory modes to develop strong images, and probably enhance your less powerful sensory modes too.  While imaging also note whether you view yourself from outside like a video camera, or from inside your body.  Consciously swap between these modes to ground your image.

The next question is what to visualize.  I think the key elements here are:
  • enhancing motor skills
  • handling adverse scenarios successfully
  • rehearsing complex sequences
  • building self confidence and the correct mindset for race day
  • experiencing what success feels like

Motor Skills
In terms of motor skills you can visualize the technicalities of a good swim stroke, and what it feels like to glide through the water with a solid catch, pushing through to the end of the stroke, rotating correctly, breathing easily, etc.  On the bike imagine a solid comfortable aero position and a smooth pedal stroke.  On the run a relaxed rhythm, and whatever running technique you're most attached to.  Watching videos of great athletes such as Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Fabian Cancellara, Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele will help with knowing what good technique looks like.

Adverse Scenarios
Make a list of potential problems, such as a flat tyre, cold, heat, wind, losing your goggles in the swim, dropping a water bottle on the bike, feeling fatigue late in the race, feeling negativity and visualize these events clearly.  Then visualize yourself handling these events effectively - what will you do, how will you make your thoughts positive?  Maybe watch yourself failing, and then slow down the image, rewind it and watch yourself do things correctly and succeed.  Reinforce the correct actions and positive outcome.

Rehearsing Complex Sequences
I write a list of equipment I need at the start of the race, in my T1 bag, my T2 bag and if necessary special needs.  I then write a short script for exactly what I will do at each of these key events in the race and then finally I visualize going through these scripts several times over.  This really helped me turn around my transitions, which used to be pretty poor but this year in Utah were nice and fast.  With this practice, you shouldn't turn up in transition in a panic but calm and focused on what you need to do.

Building Self Confidence
This one is a little less concrete, but once you have rehearsed complex sequences and adverse conditions it will be easier.  Essentially see you yourself at different stages of the race and ask yourself what kind of emotions you want to be feeling.  These should be feelings of relaxation, flow, confidence, belief in your ability.  Be aware of any negative emotions or self defeating beliefs you may have had in the past - image these and yourself turning these around to a positive outcome.

Visualize the scenarios in my previous post Own The Mat - these are the kinds of emotions you want to be able to call on when it comes time to toe the line.

Another option is to take one of your sporting greats, say for example Muhammad Ali and ask yourself, how would they feel in this scenario?  How would they handle this and what thoughts would be going through their head?  Imagine for a moment you are that person and experience what it feels like to be the best of the best.

Experience Success
Visualize how you feel when you come out of the water and you've hit a dream time, or in T2 after a great bike split.  What does that feel like?  How does it feel during the race when you're going really strong and you just seem to have bags of energy?  And of course at the finish - what are your emotions as you cross the line, when you have achieved all that you have set out to do?  Work on getting a really clear image of that in your head and experiencing the emotions and sights and sounds of success.

This is all well and good, and I can write all this stuff until the cows come home, but what about putting it into practice?  Well a number of the recommendations I have read say that mental practice should be scheduled into your program just as you do with swim, bike, run and weights.  Not only that, but it is strongly recommended to set aside 15-30 mins every day.  I don't know about you, but even with my low commitment life style that sounds a little difficult.  I'm guessing that at least 3 sessions a week is better than no sessions a week, so I'll shoot for that to start.

Starting new habits is a topic all in itself and I won't go into that here, but my plan is to pretend like I'm a mental training guru for 30 days, some kind of zen buddhist triathlon monk.  Hopefully once those 30 days are up, then I will have established a habit which will be easier to continue with and build on.

My key reference for this article was Mental Training for Peak Performance by Steven Ungerleider. There's plenty more information there if you want to do more research.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Health Warning: this article is on the technical side - you may want to skip it entirely.  I wouldn't blame you.  In fact maybe I'll just give a couple of life updates first before boring you senseless.  First of all an Urban Foraging update.  There are tonnes of brambles around the place, most of the year just irritating tangled, spiky weeds.  However now they are fruiting and blackberries are can be had all over, even in London town if you venture out to some green areas.  Top tip is pick a load, freeze em, and then they make awesome smoothies with banana, yoghurt and a bit of milk.  As a good (Irish) friend of mine says "If it's free, take two".

Second, on the kit front I went out and bought the Garmin 310XT after a recommendation from my good (Irish) friend Marino.  So far it's awesome, it links up with my Powertap and existing heart rate strap no probs and gives me even more stats than I had before.  I'm amazed that such a small thing on my wrist talks to a satellite in geostationary orbit and then plots where I am, my elevation and all kinds of other stuff.  Crazy.

Third and not so good is I came off my bike last weekend and left a decent amount of skin that I was quite attached to on the tarmac.  The roads were slippery wet and I went into one of the tighter roundabouts on the route back from Box Hill at about 45kph and using a line that my coach later described as 'interesting'.  The wheels went out from under me and there I was skidding across the road, and also bringing down said coach, Jack who was close behind me.  Jack qualified for Kona at Utah earlier this year and since has had a string of very frustrating injuries.  My little caper has set him back another few weeks, and I feel pretty awful about that - sorry Jack!

One thing I did learn from this experience (I already know I'm rubbish at cornering), is how to treat a cycle graze (graze? gash maybe).  I went to the St George Walk-In Clinic and the guy there tells me first, clean out the wound - saline solution works great for this, but you can use the normal antiseptic products too.  Then the wound should be covered so that it can heal while still moist.  This is apparently 4 times faster than letting the wound dry out as some people recommend.  1 week later my elbow already has a decent skin covering and the hip is well on its way.  He gave me some fantastic antiseptic dressings that enable all this and also stick well and come off easy.  They are called Mepilex Border Lite in case you need to know for future reference.

OK that's all the life updates.  Now on to gearing - look away now if you are bored by bike geek speak.

First a little primer if you're not big on what this is all about.  Gearing is the configuration of your front chain ring (big cogs which your pedals are attached to) and rear cassette (little cogs on the rear wheel).  Your front chain ring will either be a double with 2 rings or a triple with, yes you got it, 3.  Triples tend to be at the novice end of the market, so I'll leave those out of this discussion.

A double will typically come as standard (53-39) or compact (50-34).  The numbers represent the number of teeth on each of the rings, and a bigger ring on the front is harder to turn.  There are other sizes but the ones above are what are normally out there and since this is a discussion about what I want to use come race day, that's what I'm going to talk about.  A compact would usually be recommended for more serious climbing like going to the Alps, and the standard chain ring for everything else, however as will become clear later, the compact may be an interesting choice for Ironman.

On the rear cassette there are all kinds of sizes, but standard are 11-23, 12-23, 12-25 and 12-27.  The numbers represent the number of teeth on the smallest ring up to the biggest ring.  The biggest ring on the rear cassette is easier to turn, the opposite of the front ring.  A 12-27 is often regarded as laughable by 'real' cyclists who will swear blind you need nothing other than an 11-23 or 12-23.  12-25s are sneered at as well.  I typically ride a 12-27 as it means I can spin on climbs to keep the legs fresh - this is what I had in Utah.  However I did just check my training wheels and actually I have a 12-28!  I bought a new cassette recently and ordered a 12-27, but seems like something went a little wayward - need to have a small chat with my mechanic.  A 12-28 is cheerleader status, and I better keep that one quiet.  Thank God hardly anyone reads this blog.

OK so finally we come on to gear ratio.  Gear ratio, in layman's terms, tells you basically how hard it is to turn a certain gear combination.  So if you're in the 53 ring on the front and the 19 on the back, and you're riding a standard 700-23 wheel (you probably are), then your gear ratio is 73.4.  This is pretty much the same as being in the smaller 39 ring on the front and the 14 on the back, where the ratio is 73.3.

The question I want to answer: what is the best gear ratio for me in IM Utah next year?  The options on the front are standard or compact, and the back are 11-23, 12-25 or 12-27.  Utah is a moderately hilly course, with potential for strong winds, and a monster marathon to back it up.  Requires careful pacing on the ride and avoidance of power spikes caused by mashing gears too much.  However there are also fast sections, especially with tailwind, where it would be useful to have harder gears.

The options are compact (50-34) with 11-23 or 12-25, or standard (53-39) with 12-25 or 12-27. I would not use compact with 12-27 (too easy), or standard with 11-23 (too hard), so have left those options out.

Here are the gear tables with full options. A smaller number means easier, a bigger number means harder.

Small Chain Ring Comparison

34 34 39 39
11 81.3
12 74.5 74.5 85.5 85.5
13 68.8 68.8 78.9 78.9
14 63.9 63.9 73.3 73.3
15 59.6 59.6 68.4 68.4
16 55.9 55.9 64.1 64.1
17 52.6 52.6 60.3 60.3
19 47.1 47.1 54.0 54.0
21 42.6 42.6 48.8 48.8
23 38.9 38.9 44.6
24 42.7
25 35.8 41.0
27 38.0

There are 10 rings on the rear cassette and I have left blank where there is no combination. You can see that the 12-27 necessarily jumps from 21 to 24 and from 24 to 27. This is one of the disadvantages of the 12-27 in that in the lower gears there are 2 large jumps and you could be in a situation where one gear feels too hard and the next too easy - it's not as smooth as the 11-23.

I've stricken out the 2 hardest gears. That's because you shouldn't be crossing the chain from the small ring on the front to the small cogs on the back, and vice versa. Effectively you shouldn't be using those gears (instead you would change the ring you're using at the front and adjust the back accordingly).

Same again now but this time on the big ring:

Big Chain Ring Comparison

50 50 53 53
11 119.5
12 109.6 109.6 116.2 116.2
13 101.2 101.2 107.2 107.2
14 93.9 93.9 99.6 99.6
15 87.7 87.7 92.9 92.9
16 82.2 82.2 87.1 87.1
17 77.4 77.4 82.0 82.0
19 69.2 69.2 73.4 73.4
21 62.6 62.6 66.4 66.4
23 57.2 57.2 60.6
24 58.1
25 52.6 55.8
27 51.6

Now we can summarise this by looking at the usable ranges for each combination:

Compact Standard
11-23 38.9 - 68.8, 69.2 - 119.5
12-25 35.8 - 63.9, 62.6 - 109.6 41.0 - 73.3, 66.4 - 116.2
12-27 38.0 - 73.3, 66.4 - 116.2

What is surprising here is that the compact with 11-23 has a wider range than the standard with 12-25 and almost for the standard with 12-27 as well. There is a very minor difference on the easy end, the 34-23 selection is just a shade harder (38.9) to push than the 39-27 combination (38.0).

However one of the major advantages of the 11-23 cassette is that there are no big jumps - the shifting is a lot smoother and you have a better range of gears. You can see that there is a fair amount of overlap between the big and small chain rings using a standard, but not so with a compact. And for those macho cyclists out there who say using a compact is for girls, well the 50-11 combination is harder to push (119.5) than the 53-12 (116.2). This will be handy in Utah, as there is a fast downhill section back to town, and if there's a tailwind as there was last year, I'll be able to get up more speed before spinning out.

All credit for this idea goes to Jack, who told me that compact and 11-23 is a really strong option. I would never have thought of the idea myself, but doing the analysis backs up the statement. Of course I could have just saved the hours it took me to write this post and just listened to his expertise, but I've learned a fair amount by doing this research. Congrats if you managed to read the lot - I hope it was useful!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mind Games Pt 1:Own The Mat

As promised in my IMUK report, I'm going to write up one of the mental training techniques I'm practicing for improved performance. This also comes out of my experiences in IM Utah where I had a bit of a meltdown on the run, and subsequently decided I needed to work on my mental game.

I've already touched on the 'Quiet The Mind' technique in my last post, and I'll probably write a fuller one on that in due course, but for now it's 'Own the Mat'.

I got pretty excited when I read about this in George Leonard's The Way of Aikido. I'm a big fan of Leonard and his book Mastery is required reading for anyone interesting in getting good at anything. Mastery is an easier read and you probably want to try that one first - if you like what it has to say, then check out The Way of Aikido.

The concept is really simple, but powerful. Leonard was due to take his black belt exam, but was nervous about the randori section. Randori is where multiple combatants, typically 3, attack in a free form manner and the trainee needs to be able to handle all the attacks effectively. Here is an example of Steven Seagal performing randori with 4 attackers - he may have done some trashy movies but he sure knows his martial arts. The randori starts at about 2:20.

So Leonard was having some problems, and his coach makes a suggestion:

Why don't you try this? When you step on the mat, say to yourself, 'This is my mat'. Be expansive, be generous. Look around at the other people on the mat. Be glad they're here. Welcome them. Welcome them to your mat. ...

Are you willing to take responsibility for this mat, to own it? That doesn't mean it isn't everybody else's mat, too. If you're big enough to own the mat as yours, you're big enough to let it be theirs too.

Leonard practiced this technique, and suffice to say he ace'd his exam. As Leonard points out, this can be applied to many walks of life, whether it be aikido, business, athletics or whatever.

Leonard expands on this:

Say you're playing in a tournament at your tennis club and there's a gate that leads to the court. As you step through that gate, say to yourself, "This is my court". Pause for a moment aftering entering and let your eyes sweep over the entire area. As you do so, take ownership of everything involved in the game. Consider yourself not a mere actor in the drama that is about to unfold, but author, director, and producer as well. Take full responsibility for the court condition, the wind, the light. Since you own this place, you can be a gracious host, welcoming everyone present - the spectators, the officials, the ball retrievers - with a friendly word, a smile, or a pleasant glance. This is all done in a relaxed, powerful, and centred manner.

Be especially welcoming to your opponent. He or she is your guest, someone who has come to help you play the game. The better the opponent, the better your game. If by some chance this opponent tries to intimidate you, don't intimidate back. There's no need to, for only the one who is willing to be intimidated can be intimidated, and you're in an entirely different position. Your opponent, no matter what his or her demeanour, is a welcome guest who is there to help you play a better game, and thus is always to be treated in a gracious manner ... At the end, the measure of the experience has less to do with winning or losing than with the quality of the game.

But don't be surprised if you win.

So I decided to try this at IMUK. I got the opportunity to check out the course a couple of weeks before the race and so jumped on it - this is an important step - if you get a chance to scope your venue well in advance then all the better. If not, ensure you have the time when you get there to do this. As you go to the key locations, T1, T2, start, finish, even the building where the pasta party/awards ceremony are to be held, take a moment to own each of the locations. Realise that this is your race, your town and be grateful for all the organisers and volunteers who are making your race possible.

Check out the bike course, your bike course. You're not intimidated by it, because after all it is your course and you're going to do well on it. Pretend like this is the town where you live and this is the route you cycle every weekend - you are fond of its twists and turns and various idiosyncrasies. Similarly with the run course and the swim venue.

Scoping the course out in advance means you can replay doing this in your mind before you get to the race location. Even if you haven't been able to do this you will need to rack your stuff and can therefore experience transition before race day and do your scoping then. Try to do a practise swim at the swim venue before race day and scope out the start and your start strategy.

On the day of the race in T1, look around you and own the transition. This is your race, once again be grateful for everyone who is here and who has made this race possible, organisers, volunteers, supporters, competitors. Be grateful that they have come here to be a part of your day.

I tried this in Bolton, and actually instead of thinking this is a tough course in the distant north of the country, I thought I was born not far from here in Ripon, my dad is from Oldham, I have close friends whose family live here - in actuality this is like a second home to me. That helped me believe it was my race and I was comfortable there - not in some foreign, unknown place. I really think that mind shift is useful for getting the right attitude come race day.

Looking to the future and my pending race in Utah next year, I have a head start. I've done the course, I know the town, I know the venues, I can visualize them all, and thus it is pretty easy for me to own that course. The big challenge is the marathon, and I know that very well. I know how to train for it and what it will feel like. I'm not intimidated by it, because it's my marathon course and so I'm looking forward to it. In fact I even chuckle to myself for the poor souls who will be doing that course for the first time next year - they won't know what's hit them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

IMUK: Post Race Analysis

If you're not into stats, skip this post - it's boring as hell! This is one for me and my coach.

On balance I am really happy with this race and I think it was my best executed race since my first, IMWA back in 2007. It's interesting to look at why that might be and the correlations between these 2 races, and the differences with the races in between when I didn't get my race strategy right. But first I'm going to break down the elements of the race and see if there is anything I can learn about what went right and what I can improve.

With this being UK based and not an A race, I decided to go to Bolton on the Friday with the plan of registering then and racking Saturday. Due to some poor planning I ended up leaving London later than I would have liked - about 11AM. The journey was miserable - I hit traffic on the M25, many parts of the M1 and most of the M6. The last 50 miles of the trip took me 2 hours and the total time was 8 hours!

This meant I missed registration and arrived in Bolton tired and frustrated. Thankfully I did take plenty of food with me and so grazed most of the way up, although this was prob a little more fruit heavy than I would have liked. A winning move was hooking up with friends Anton & Christian and their families, who kindly cooked Fri & Sat evenings and so I had a chance to relax when I actually got into Bolton.

Saturday the plan was practice swim, registration, racking, lunch and then race briefing 5PM. The Bolton course is very spread out - registration (and T1 of course) is down by the swim, T2 is 15 miles away at Rivington, briefings are at the Reebok stadium, which is somewhere between the 2 transitions and the finish is in Bolton town centre. I was staying quite close to the Reebok, as that was where we would catch coaches in the morning to take us to the start. So executing my seemingly simple Saturday plan actually resulted in probably another 4-5 hours in the car and by the time I got to the race briefing at 5PM I felt like I hadn't really had much rest all day.

Leaving early doors on Fri and getting registration out of the way would have helped. The other option is going up Thu - prob not a bad idea if you're planning to hit this race hard.

Sleep: no problems here - out like a light Fri & Sat.
Food: good pasta meals Fri & Sat, and a decent lunch Sat
Race day breakfast: porridge + honey, bagel + honey, banana, 400ml Torq Recovery

Made it to the start line: M3539 207 competitors out of a total 1,115

Section Split M3539 Overall
Swim 58:12 21 93
T1 5:57 61 278
Bike 6:11:44 36 129
T2 2:21 6 32
Run 3:28:41 18 72
Total 10:46:57 20 79

Relative Position:
Section M3539 Overall
Exit Swim 21 93
Exit T1 24 104
Exit Bike 27 103
Exit T2 25 99
Exit Run 20 79

I had a great swim - I scoped out the course on Sat AM and made intelligent decisions on where to start to avoid the initial mayhem. It makes a big difference to swim in clear water - you go faster, you're relaxed and don't expend unnecessary energy early in the race. I went out strong for about 150m and then settled into a rhythm. Didn't bother with drafts unless they happened to be there, focused more on swimming easy and with good technique.

The deep water start here was a 5 min swim from shore and the entry point to the water is quite narrow. People didn't want to get in the water too early - add all this together and what you get is a lot of people not on the start line when the horn sounds. I knew this would happen and ensured I was where I needed to be. I had about 8 mins treading water but that was fine - water temp was 18C+.

Out of the water, I immediately found a clear spot and took off my wetsuit - this is because the water in the suit makes it easier to get the arms and legs out. My balance was not great - I should have held on to something to help me. No wetsuit strippers, just a volunteer who kindly told me I should keep running - er, thanks, perhaps rather than just standing there you could help me? I ignored them and kept my thoughts to myself.

I didn't really have a sense of urgency in T1 and also due to the weather there were decisions to be made on extra clothing. I chose correctly with just arm warmers. Shoes in my bag, not on the bike (haven't practised that), and race belt in the bag too. Maybe a few seconds there, although IMSG won't let you have the shoes on the bike. Pee break - LONG pee break! Not sure if there's anything I can do about that - maybe try harder to pee before the race? I don't think I'm going to be exploring on-bike evac anytime soon, and besides in some races that can be a time penalty offense.

Equipment: P3, aero helmet, Powertap, training wheels with Ultra Gatorskin tyres
Saddle bag: 2x tubes, 3x gas canister, 1 gas inflator, 2x tyre levers, mini puncture repair kit, mini bike tool (total weight 615g)

Hmm - the saddle bag is nearly as heavy as a high end front race wheel! Next IM I am on tubbies, so maybe there are some weight savings there. Canisters are 60g ea, tubes about 100g, bike tool 100g.

Wheels: Front 1290g, Back 1830g - that powertap is heavy! Next year I plan to get race wheels with tubbies and sell the PT to replace with Metrigear which I think could save me as much as 1kg here, and that's not even thinking about the aerodynamic advantages. Metrigear measure power from the pedals - an awesome idea, only problem is they haven't released their product yet!

When I got home I saw that a spoke had broken on my front wheel - I told you the course surface was rough! Although when I tested this AM this was totally throwing off the tracking causing the rim to rub the brakes, I didn't notice any issues during the race, and certainly no rubbing - a bit lucky there..

Clothing: 2 piece (important for toilet breaks), arm warmers. The tri top was chafing underarm on the run so that needs to get swapped out. No socks on the bike, socks on the run (works for me..). Opted for bulkier training shoes rather than racing flats - I'm just not ready for them yet.

2183m climbing, 184K, temp mild, wind moderate.
I found the bike quite hard and got uncomfortable early on - I haven't really had enough training post Utah and only did a couple of 5 hour aero rides in the lead up. Just 5 weeks pre race I was cycling like a school girl. As I have said my recovery from Utah was taking much longer than expected and I opted for downtime rather than trying to push through - I think this was ultimately a pretty good decision. In the 3 weeks pre race I started to feel OK, not peaking by any stretch, but thinking that I might not actually die a death out there.

Stats: I don't have HR as my PT heart rate strap only works with the PT bike computer, so to get HR for the whole race I would need to wear 2 straps. I'm not doing that. The other option is to buy Garmin watch/strap/bike computer which would be compatible with whatever power system I have. I'll think about whether spending all that cash is worth it. I guess then I would have elevation too..

My weight on race day was around 66kg - this is definitely on the light side and partially due to my diet change (more on that later) - optimally I think 70kg with the extra 4kg lean muscle sounds about right. 6 weeks before race day I tested my body fat and that came out as just over 5% - again low! Not sure how accurate the reading was but hey, there you go. My race average power was 187W and normalized 203W with 80 cadence and a total expenditure of 4183Kj. In Utah my average was 198W and normalized 210W.  Normalized is a better indicator of effort as it smooths out some of the variability caused by terrain and weather.  Surprisingly this shows a pretty similar output between Utah and Bolton - I thought my bike pacing strategy killed me in Utah, maybe that wasn't so much the case..

Section Distance Time Power Normalized Cadence
T1 to Adlington 25k 00:48:30 208 213 88
Loop 1 52k 01:44:00 195 209 81
Loop 2 52k 01:48:00 175 192 78
Loop 3 52k 01:44:30 182 201 78

You may note the distances don't add to 184k (what my clock registered) - that's because there's an extra few K after you've completed loop 3 through to the finish. Now what is interesting and doesn't come out above is the last 20K. There my power was 213W, normalised 228W with cadence 85 - I was very happy with that!

So what's the picture here? Well there's a definite drop off mid race on lap 2 which corresponds with my dark patch. It would have been around then when I covered up my power indicator with tape, because I didn't like what it was telling me. I picked it up on the final lap and finished well. I think I did a good job of containing myself early on - OK the numbers are higher then, but if I didn't try to dial it back they probably would have said 240 or something crazy. Perhaps I could have made more of an effort to stay below 200.

Power zones: the ones below correspond closer to what my coach actually gives me - in my Utah write up the ranges were a bit off:

Zone Power Time Time (%)
Zero Watts 0 00:19:05 5.32%
Recovery 0 - 160 01:24:25 22.66%
Functional Endurance 161 - 180 00:52:16 14.03%
Intense Endurance 181 - 205 01:09:14 18.58%
Race Pace 206 - 225 00:47:04 12.63%
Tempo 226 - 255 00:48:04 12.90%
Steady State+ 256+ 00:51:39 13.86%

Bike Summary: given my fitness in the build up, I think this went really well. After the race I was thinking I had had a soft bike - it certainly felt that way with what seemed like loads of athletes gunning past me. In actuality if you look at the relative positions above, my actual position in the race did not change much - we always notice the guys coming past but rarely register those we pass ourselves.

On the bike I took:
  • 10 x TORQ gels (2 with caffeine - 89mg ea) 114 kcal ea
  • a TORQ bar 232 kcal ea
  • 2 x 500ml Torq Energy 175 kcal ea
  • 1 x 400ml Gatorade (~130 kcal)
  • 1 x 500ml water
  • TOTAL =  1852 kcal
On the run:
  • 3 x HI5 Isogel (88 kcal ea)
  • 3 x 200ml Pepsi (84 kcal ea - about 21mg caffeine ea)
  • 2 x 200ml water
  • TOTAL = 516 kcal
I estimate I took over 500 kcal more on the bike than in Utah - on the run I took about the same as Utah.  Prob slightly less fluid but it was much cooler in Bolton.  Looking at the figures above it strikes me how much caffeine there is in those gels.  Even though they taste gross, I'm thinking I might want to make more use of them and also try them late in the run.  A massive 89mg - you would need to consume almost a litre of Pepsi to replicate that.  If I can stomach them at that stage, caffeine gels and water is a better strategy than coke, which comes as news to me.

The effect of the caffeine on the last 20K of the bike was very surprising.  Maybe I should take them earlier in the bike say at about 4 hours, and then also have a couple for the second half of the run.

The other consideration was day to day nutrition.  As I mentioned in a previous post I changed my diet for health and performance reasons 2 months ago.  I was concerned about my initial weight loss on that reduced carb diet and also whether it would adversely impact my athletic ability.  I'm not worried about that anymore - in fact I'm pretty certain it contributed to a faster result on the day.  I do need to get back some lean muscle mass, but recommencing weight training will no doubt sort that out (I basically haven't done any post Utah).

459m ascent during the final leg

Because of the lack of mile markers it's very difficult to assess the fluctuations in my pace (another reason for getting Garmin?).  After last year there were plenty of comments about lack of markers (which apparently had been stolen!).  This year we were told they had heard the athlete's feedback and got mile markers and plans for how to ensure they stayed where they were meant to be.  I think 'could do better' is on their report card for this year - there were markers at 3, 7, 10, 15 and 23.  I didn't see 7 until the second loop so it wasn't a lot of use to me.

For me, the only irritation with this is not getting regular mile splits for post race analysis.  I don't look at my watch during the marathon - I just don't want to know.  I know how I feel and can pretty accurately estimate my required effort level.  I'm not going to look at my watch and think, oh I should run 30 seconds a mile faster now - yeah good luck with that.  And if I'm slowing down, well then guess what, I know already and I don't need my watch to tell me by how much.  I looked at my watch once - at 23 miles to see if I had a chance of breaking 11.  Thankfully the news I got was good.

MileSplit Pace
30:18:00 6:00
100:48:26 6:55
150:41:55 8:23
231:14:37 9:20
26.2 25:358:00

Now the big problem here is I have zero confidence that the mile markers were accurately placed, which pretty much makes the stats above close to meaningless.  For example I was not running 6 minute miles coming out of T2.  Sure I felt great and I was running well, but was I running 2:37 marathon pace?  All I can say is the man who measured that part of the course probably gave his wife some pretty inaccurate information before he managed to get her in bed for the first time.

7 min miling to mile 10 is actually more like it - this was predominantly on a down gradient and I was running well at this stage.  Miles 11 to 18.5 are going back up this climb, so mid to high 8s would also seem about right.  8 for the final section is possible too as the course goes quite sharply down (despite one nasty uphill) and I could smell home.

I have heard murmurings that maybe the marathon was short.  Personally I just don't want to to think about that - as far as I'm concerned I ran sub 3:30.  I can live with a short swim and long bike, but a short run cuts to the quick of what I am most proud of on the day.

Is there anything I can learn here?  Did I go out too hard?  You know, I don't think so - I felt good and I kept myself in check, I could have run a fair bit harder in the first half, but then I would have blown in the second.  I slowed because I was fatigued, not because I paced poorly, and you have to remember the mid section of the run is uphill so I would naturally slow.  Accurate mile splits would tell the true story, but I don't have those.

I was losing ground in the last 8 miles, but that was maybe 6 places overall at best.  In the ideal world I would close the marathon strong and take down a bunch of people - maybe at peak fitness I will be able to do just that.

In the weeks running up to this event my mental outlook on the race was none too positive and I didn't work on some of the mental techniques I had resolved to after Utah. I was experiencing some mild burnout and made a conscious decision to back right off. I missed workouts and just did enough to keep ticking over. In training my buddies were peaking for their races and killing me, so I did some rides by myself so as not to get too badly beasted.

This rest helped and with about 3 weeks to go, I felt OK. Not peaking by a long way, but basically not feeling bad either. I began to look forward to the race. A massive plus was there was zero pressure on me. I couldn't care about position or time, I just wanted to have a solid second half to the marathon. This zero pressure mirrors my other strong race, my first one IMWA in 2007.

Probably where this counts is easy pacing early in the day - a relaxed swim, and an even paced bike - any guys that passed me I just ignored and focused on my effort level. Just let them go. Today I'm not racing, I'm on a long training day. That doesn't mean slacking, just being solid.

There were 2 main techniques I wanted to try out on race day:
  1. Quiet the Mind
  2. Own the Mat
The second of those sounds a bit funky - that's gonna be my next blog post, so stay tuned if you want to find out what that's all about. Quiet the mind is pretty simple - just quiet down all the chatter in your head, especially the negative stuff. Stay in the now and forget about what's happened in the race, what you've got ahead of you, how bad you feel. This takes practice - I find it helps to focus on your breathing, just observe your breath in and out, maybe count breathes. Just that. Feel the wind, listen to the bike, zone out a bit. The single best thing I did all day was cover up my power indicator and stop the negative feedback I was getting from it. That freed me up to just relax and do my job.

I'm no expert, I have to practice this technique a lot more, but I'm happy with how I did it on the day. I resisted the negative thoughts and didn't fall apart. On the marathon you can bet I was hurting out there late in the day, but I just thought all I need to do is keep going. The pace is OK just stay with it and before you know it you'll be close to home and then it's just a case of a final push.

The great thing about this technique is you can practice it anywhere - not just your swim, bike and runs but also whenever you feel stressed, at work or at home. Even if you feel fine, just practice emptying your mind of all the chatter. I got this from Mark Allen - listen to his interviews on Competitor Radio, to find out how The Grip used this to pull off his most famous victories.

  • scope the swim carefully beforehand and swim off the racing line
  • don't expect help during transitions - if you get some great, otherwise get on with it
  • power is good info for the first 1-2 hrs of the bike, after that cover it up and go on feel
  • more nutrition on the bike works!
  • caffeine gels are rocket fuel - try using them earlier on the bike and in the second half of the run
  • get a new tri top - the current one chafes when running
  • look at weight saving tactics on the bike (saddle bag / wheels / power meter)
  • need to do much more work on the mental game
  • sometimes making a dumbass move like entering IMUK because you were disappointed with your race earlier in the season can actually be a really good decision after all!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ironman UK 2010

Coming into this race, I basically had low expectations.  My training over the past weeks and months has been sporadic despite my coach's best efforts, and my recovery from IMSG earlier in the year was slow.  I was mentally and physically drained and I was cursing the rush of blood immediately after Utah that had made me sign up for UK.  In a very similar situation 2 years ago after IM Zurich and going into IMUK at Sherbourne I had had a horrible experience and a very long day.

2 weeks ago I came up and scoped out the course, and I knew this was not going to be easy - I hadn't seen the run course, but the profile is hilly and so there wasn't going to be any respite there either, if respite can be classed as a flat marathon.  Realistically I thought 11:30 would be a very solid result, and I threw 11:00 out there as a rock star time, which I had no real hope of hitting.  Goals for the day:
  • stay out of trouble at the start of the swim and go steady. Target 62 mins
  • experiment with more nutrition on the bike
  • survive the bike and pace it steady.  Target 6:30
  • try to have an OK marathon - run all the way and don't blow up.  Target 3:45
  • be mentally strong when the inevitable fatigue sets in - good practice for next year
The Swim
There was talk of toxic blue green algae due to the unseasonably warm weather (I think Bolton may have experienced sun for the first time in some millenia) and a possible cancellation of the swim.  On the day this was a non issue.  The swim start was a deep water start between 2 buoys and the course 2 triangular laps.  After checking out the layout the day before, and after my disastrous swim start in Utah and a determination not to repeat that, I planned to seed myself far right off the racing line and away from the bulk of swimmers.  My thinking was it would be much better to swim a little further so long as I could swim in clear water.

I actually placed myself further right than the right hand buoy where there were a handful of others with the same idea.  In fact the far turnaround buoy was in such a place that I think I had a better line than the pack to my left.  This was a great choice - the starting horn sounded and I had no traffic whatsoever right from the start - I kid you not - ZERO traffic for practically the whole swim.  A minor bump here and there but nothing like the usual maelstrom.

I didn't search out any drafts, although I did naturally pick some up for parts of the swim.  I have found that searching out drafts and then trying to hold them while they fish tail around is actually a fair amount of effort and often it's better to just swim easy and focus on technique.  If you're lucky and get a good draft who can swim straight and slightly faster than you then well done.  I enjoyed the swim and felt really relaxed.

Coming out of the water I immediately took off my wetsuit - rather poorly in fact - note to self it's easier with something to hold on to to keep your balance.  I feel it's important to get the suit off early - it's easier with the water still in the legs and also you can run faster with the suit off than on.  I checked my watch - 58 mins and my first sub 60 swim!  I was delighted but I also knew immediately that the swim was short - I had had my best IM swim certainly but I was not in sub 60 shape.  Subsequently looking at times, everyone was fast and I believe the swim was short, maybe by as much as 200m.  How come organisers can't get this right?  In these days of GPS it is not difficult.

Coming into T1 a volunteer asked if I would like some help - Yes please! I said, and then they promptly disappeared.  Sweet - maybe they weren't talking to me.  Hey ho guess I better do it myself then huh?  Weather was a big concern on the day, with decent rain in the days leading up and no idea if it was to be hot or cold out on the course.  I opted for arm warmers and decided against an extra layer - this proved the correct choice and indeed we were blessed with relatively mild conditions all day.  I had to take a pee break, one of those ones that seem never ending and my time in T1 was slow: 5:57, but hey you're gonna have to go sometime and I haven't yet perfected the dark art of the on-bike evac.

The Bike
The first section of the bike is a gradual ascent up to Adlington, which is the start of the first loop of three and about 14 miles.  With my power meter I kept my effort in check, even with it there it's difficult to dial down, and it's irritating with quite a few cyclists gunning past me.  I just kept reminding myself, it's long day and also there's no pressure on me - my main goal was being able to execute a solid marathon and so I just had to let everyone go and focus on myself.  I didn't have race wheels for the day, because I wanted my Powertap (which is built into my rear training wheel) - I could have searched around for PT race wheels to hire, but as this was not an A race I decided against it.  I missed having race wheels certainly - one to think about for the future.

Near the start of the loop, there is the major climb of the day: Sheep House Lane.  It's not a crazy ascent but again it is important to keep everything in check and not blow your race at such an early stage.  I had 53-39 and 12-27 gearing, and spinning out in the 27 on the steeper sections was quite handy.  I want to check out the gear range of using a compact and say an 11-23 or 11-25 - I'll need to look at the gear tables and report back.  I think this gives a better and smoother range of gears - a short blog post for the future.

The ascent afforded us some pretty impressive views of the local countryside and thankfully although exposed at the top, the wind was not too heavy.  After this climb there is a long descent which takes you to the top of the loop.  There were cross and headwinds on this section so it was not as fast as I had hoped and I also needed to put in some effort to get some decent speed - it certainly wasn't a free ride.

One of my plans for the race was to experiment with taking more nutrition - I think I was on the light side in Utah and that may have contributed to a sub standard marathon.  My bike was loaded with 11 gels and 2 bars and the plan was to take something every 30 mins, with the bars earlier rather than later.  Amongst those I had 2 caffeine gels for the last section of the bike.  I stuck to that plan pretty well, although I never got round to the second bar.

Towards the end of the first loop I started to feel a little uncomfortable which was not a great sign - early signs of some lower back pain.  This final third of the loop brings you gradually back up to Adlington and then the signature Sheep House climb - I was happy to do some seated climbing and out of the saddle work, plus the support was beginning to build at this key part of the course, raising the spirits.  The wind seemed stronger on the following descent and indeed later on the third loop seemed stronger again - of course that may have just been fatigue.

Half way through the second loop I started to hurt and entered my first dark patch of the day.  My back was sore, there was still the odd cyclist coming past me and my power meter was constantly reminding me of how much of a jessie I was.  I also had a long long way to go.  I remembered my goal of mental strength and made an inspired move.  I took some tape I had used to secure a gel to the top tube of my bike and covered up the power indicator on my bike computer.  Now I could only see cadence and total ride time.  This was a huge weight off my shoulders - I realised that I had been seeing this constant stream of negative feedback from the low power stats and it had been doing my head in.  Now I could focus on appropriate effort and just doing my race.  Soon the pain in my back eased off and I could get into a rhythm.

I think the power meter is awesome for the crucial first 2 hours of the race to keep yourself in check, but for me, after that initial period I think I'm best without it.  It's also great for post race analysis, but covering that bugger up was the single best thing I did all day.

I won't say the third loop was easy but it seemed better than the second.  With about 25K to go I had only my 2 caffeine gels left and so I downed one of them.  A kind of group of about 6 cyclists had formed in front of me and except for 1 guy I could see they were trying to stay draft legal, whilst also getting some kind of shielding from the wind.  I tried to hang off the back of this group at a legal distance but found that it would slow on climbs and my option was either to back off, risk being in a slightly dodgy scenario or go off the front.  I thought stuff it and went off the front.  And then the caffeine kicked in - it was like I was a new person, my energy levels came right back up and I pulled away from the group easily.

For that last 30 mins I felt great and finished really strong taking about 10 cyclists - it was a joy to be passing people rather than constantly being beasted.  I was so happy to be finishing my bike leg strong - something I don't usually do, and it was a great mental boost.  Bike split was 6:11 and my computer registered 184K - what they gave us in the swim they took back on the bike.

The Run
Coming out of T2 I immediately felt a sharp shooting pain in my left knee and had a mild panic - loads of my friends have knee problems and here I was 26 miles from the finish line with a twinge I had never had before.  Thankfully it was nothing and the pain soon eased off.  The start of the run pretty much immediately takes you up a short sharp climb.  What a lovely introduction to the marathon I thought to myself.  The first 3 miles are through a forest trail which through no fault of the organisers had got a bit churned up in the days leading up to the event.  I really didn't want wet shoes or an extra kilo of mud to carry around and so dancing around the muddy patches on tired legs was interesting.

I actually really enjoyed this forested section - it was quiet and beautiful and a welcome change from pounding the tarmac.  Soon I was back onto the roads - after this initial section there is a long gradual rolling descent to Bolton Town Hall where they have the finish, however when you get there they turn you round and you have the joy of ascending all the way back up before a final turn around and another descent back to the town centre.  I was loving this early section of the run and was eating up the field.  However I was being sensible and knew it wouldn't last - I was trying to keep everything steady for the second half of the run, but when you're flowing easily you may as well take it.

I hit the turnaround and started the sapping climb, about 7 miles back up to Rivington.  My pace gradually slowed on this section but I was still catching people upto about 1 mile from the turnaround.  Then a couple of runners I had bridged to started to pull away from me.  At last the final turn and then 7 miles back to town on a gradual descent - definitely the way I would choose to finish!

My pace was slowing though and on this last section maybe 5 or 6 athletes came back at me and passed.  With 3 miles to go I held steady about 20 metres behind the guy in front.  At 24 miles there is a vicious little climb that takes you off the flat canal section and up onto the road for the final bid for home.  I did a kind of pretend run on this hill with my arms pumping, but I don't think both feet got off the ground at the same time.  I had to chuckle to myself at how stupid I must look but equally I knew there was just this and then it was all downhill from there.

Over this final hurdle and then just a case of holding it all together.  Soon enough the finish came in sight once more but this time for real and I have to say IMUK did us proud this year.  There was great atmosphere outside the town hall and a big screen (I mean BIG) above the finish line as I came down the finish chute.  I was delighted with my 10:46 finish and 3:28 marathon split - way beyond what I had hoped for.  I had achieved my main goal to do a solid marathon and exorcised the demons of Utah where I fell apart out on the run.  It was enough for 20th in AG out of 279.  Having dreaded this race for weeks, I'm now really pleased I made the dumb decision to enter - it has been a great end to my long course season and rejuvenated me for next year.

Awards Ceremony Drama
For the most part there were not many surprises at the Awards and Roll Down which were combined on the Monday.  Most winners and second or third placed athletes took the meagre number of  Kona slots on offer.  If you're an 18-25 female and you want to go to the Big Island, then have a think about this race - on the day if you rocked up and finished you could have gone - no one turned up in that age group!

In my B&B there were a bunch of athletes, and amongst them a young 22 year old guy called Jack who was doing his first IM with a friend.  They are rock climbers and 5 months ago thought it would be a good idea to do Bolton.  The lad did a blinder and came home in 11:02 and 4th in AG with 2 slots on offer - he had dug deep and was in some pain the next day.  When they called the top 3 on stage, the lead guy was a no show.  2nd place happily took his slot.

3rd place decided not to take his slot - he rather mournfully said he was 'just a poor student'.  In my opinion this showed a shocking lack of imagination - this guy didn't have the initiative to raise the money, let's call it 1500GBP to cover everything, to have one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime, one he would never forget.  Please, just pay for the slot and worry about the money later.  To be fair he's young and probably has no idea of the opportunity he has just thrown away so carelessly.

So then Jack gets called out.  Awesome.  The only problem is, he's not there either.  At that moment Jack was in the car driving home, oblivious to what was happening back in Bolton.  He had just qualified for the Big Show and I have no doubt that he has absolutely no idea of what that means, of how so many of us dream of that golden chance and so few achieve it, of the enormity of what he had done.  I shuddered to think that not only did he miss his place but also that even if he had known, he probably wouldn't have cared.

What was a joy to see however was 5th place, who couldn't believe his luck.  He was definitely taking his place and kissed his ticket with obvious delight.  He was a worthy recipient of the coveted slot and I'm sure he'll have a great time come October.

Technical stat-tastic race report to come..