I chose IMSG for one reason and one reason alone - I wanted to qualify for Kona and this race ticked all the boxes:
- It has a healthy number of slots (72)
- It's in the US where the standard is not as crazy competitive as Europe
- It's a challenging course where drafting is unlikely
- It favours a strong runner due to the brutally hard marathon
- It's the inaugural race when the standard may be lower than usual
I prepared carefully for this race and during the hardest part of the winter I went to Cape Town for 6 weeks to work and train - thankfully my remote working job enables me to do that. I turned up in Utah fit, healthy, ready to race and with lifetime best fitness.
I researched the race and I had my game plan - this race was not all about the bike, it was the killer run that would make the difference. It was vital to be able to pace swim and bike to enable myself to execute a solid marathon. Under no circumstances did I want to blow up on the run - I'd lose far too much time. I ran a sub 80 half marathon in the prep for this race so I knew I could create some damage on the final leg. The question was, would I be able to hold back until the later stages when the real race begins?
IMSG has separate transitions: T1 at Sand Hollow Reservoir, a stunning lake with distant mountains standing proud on the horizon and T2 in the centre of town. Forecast for the day was a chilly 10C start with highs in the low 20s in the afternoon, and thankfully predictions for wind were moderate, rather than the 40mph winds we had had a couple days beforehand. Water temp was not going to be too pretty and in fact over 40 athletes DNF'd on the swim alone.
I seeded myself near the front and relatively centrally. On reflection I should have placed myself wider away from the racing line. The gun went off and the inevitable mayhem kicked off. I soon found myself in a seething mass of bodies - my plan to swim hard for a couple of minutes and get into open space was not happening.
Bodies left and right, legs kicking in front and arms slapping down on my legs behind - stuff technique, this was about survival and trying to get some forward movement. At one point some guy swam right over me giving me a decent dunking, a mouthful of water and colourful thoughts of revenge. Instead I decided to settle, get focussed and get moving a little more smoothly.
After about 1K the field started to thin out and I could look around for a draft. I'm not sure what it was but I found sighting quite difficult on this course - I just couldn't make out the bouys easily. They were the same colour as the men's swim caps on the way out and women's caps on the way back, which may have contributed. This became worse at the turnaround when we started to swim into the rising sun - tinted goggles have their time and place and this was it. Isn't 20-20 hindsight wonderful?
Sighting difficulties aside, I did finally get into a rhythm and relaxed into my stroke for the final K. I even found a decent draft behind some guy who pulled me past a few groups.
In prep for this race my swimming had shown some strong improvement and I thought my goal of sub 58 would be pretty straightforward. On exit my watch showed 61:30 - I was disappointed there, but thought, well it's a long day - it can't be helped now, just get on with the job in hand.
T1 went quick, actually very quick - I had the fastest T1 in my AG and that despite the fact that some helpful soul had tied up my bag with a tough knot. Always fun untying those with cold hands! Lesson - check your bag in the AM in case it has changed since check in the previous day. Out of the water I was 24th in AG, after T1 I had moved up to 14th! Did these guys know they were in a race??
My training had been bike focussed - I hired Jack Cartwright as my coach to benefit primarily from his cycling expertise - it has proved a very good fit for me and I'm indebted to him for all his help over the past months. This was back in Oct 2008 and since then I had been doing back to back Sat and Sun rides. However I didn't really know where I was, as I had missed the opportunity to race IM Nice in 09 due to a broken collar bone.
I had also upgraded my kit to the max: Cervelo P3, Giro TT helmet and Powertap. I had rented HEDs with a Powertap hub for vital feedback in the race and to ensure I kept to my planned power profile no matter what the weather or course profile. As it happened the HEDs were not available as the race approached and so the rental company sent me Zipp 404 and 808s with PT - the problem was these were tubulars and not the clinchers I was used to.
I worried no end about getting a flat and having a Stadler moment on the side of the course. As is often the case, that which we worry about the most typically never happens - the tyres held good for the duration.
The roads in St George are in good condition with some awesome smooth sections - some guys had complained about rough chip seal on large parts of the course - they should try riding around our roads after the winter we have just had! Out of T1 the bike flew along - predictably after all the training and at this early stage I felt great. The plan was to hold about 205 watts on the start and first loop, pushing maybe 240/250 on climbs but keeping a cap on any hard efforts uphill. For the second loop I would build to 215 for a strong finish. I felt this was a conservative strategy - I had read Gordo recommend that Kona guys would be averaging 230, but I knew that was beyond my ability.
The 2 loops of the course consist of a long gradual climb with some short sharp sections and a final harder effort up The Wall, a Box Hill like climb after which it flattens off before the descent back into St George. For most of the ascent we were greeted with a headwind - this was not going to be an easy day. The positive here though was I didn't see any drafting out on the course - none of the 30/40 strong packs you see on some flatter courses on the circuit. This is a hard but honest race. On the opening section I averaged 220 - above my target.
I expected people would be gunning past me as I am used to in my races, but I held my own, taking a few and being taken by a few. On the descent into St George we now had a tailwind and I flew along at around 50kph, often maxed out in my 53/12. However this wasn't exactly a rest as I still wanted to work to maintain around 200 watts. My average for loop 1 was 203 - bang on plan.
The second loop started and I actually passed some of the slower female pros. The odd guy here and there came past, but they looked pretty studly so I wasn't overly concerned. Soon enough my coach Jack, who was also doing the race, caught up with me - we exchanged some encouraging words and then he disappeared off into the distance as if he was riding a marshal's motorbike rather than his TT.
I was feeling uncomfortable on this second loop working into the ascents and headwind - I quickly reassessed my 215 target to 180/190 and focussed on relaxing and trying to save my reserves. Once more over The Wall and then thankfully the tailwind again - it must have picked up as I averaged 56kph this time with an 81kph max. I worked this section and it was fun to fly past what seemed like 100s of backmarkers on their first loop. I was definitely looking forward to getting off the bike and on the run. Average power on this loop was 185.
T2 was slick and with a 5:39 bike split and 6:45 on the clock, I got out on the run. The IMSG organisers have put together an incredibly challenging marathon - the bike is moderately tough but the 2 loop hilly run makes this event possibly the hardest on the circuit.
At this stage of the race I have to admit I thought Kona was pretty much out. With a best hope 3:30 marathon that would give me 10:15. I thought that was not enough - as it happens that would have been a rock star time on this course and a shoe in for Hawaii. What I didn't know was that I was sitting 10th in AG and was actually well in the mix.
I was not about to give up though - it's a long day and a lot can happen. The run starts with a 3.5 mile climb that ends with an 8% grade over Red Hills Parkway - by the time I got to that section I was breathing hard and receiving a serious dose of reality. My moderate pace out of T2 had slowed right down and I felt I was dying. This wasn't supposed to happen! In training I was running low 7 minute miles off the bike (5 hour bike, 60 min brick), but they were on the flat roads of London. Running an 8% climb is something else entirely! Miles 1-3 were low 8 min miles (with a loo stop), mile 4 was a 10 min mile!
Cresting the hill I got my first proper downhill and matters began to improve. I felt almost normal again and I could run closer to what I had become accustomed to in my bricks. My outlook improved and I thought maybe I can do this - I only have to get over this climb 4 times right?
Just before the turnaround I got on a small loop with some deceptively energy sapping kickers. As I came into the loop I saw Jack on his way out - about 15 mins ahead of me. He looked in devastating form.
The aid stations were every mile and with tonnes of volunteers and supplies. Some had great music blaring out and near the turnaround was a band bashing out motivational classics such as Eye of The Tiger, guaranteed to raise the spirits.
From the turnaround you work your way over several hills and back to the beast at Red Hills Parkway. The only good part of this is the 3+ mile descent back into town afterwards. On the descent I again found some form and some well needed positive attitude. Jack's support posse led by his wife Angie cheered me on. On my outbound loop I was 57:44 and back 59:52 - a 1:57:36 half split. I actually thought I had done OK here but that's a pretty pedestrian pace.
Coming back up the 3.5 mile ascent, I got to mile 14 and then the wheels fell off. Exactly the scenario I had planned to avoid had become reality - I detonated. Before I knew it I was stumbling about and thinking I might fall over. I immediately took a gel and tried to compose myself - thankfully I was close to an aid station to get some more flat coke down me.
Triathletes will often attribute a serious blow out on the run to a poor nutritional strategy or 'the wrong flavour energy drink'. More often than not it is actually due to insufficient training or poor pacing. For me it was the later - I had fried myself on the bike with an over ambitious power profile. I hadn't given this run course the immense respect it demands.
When I've had a dark patch on the run previously I immediately switch to a walk the aid stations, run between strategy. That works OK on the flat but is not so easy on hills. I did plenty of walking and especially on my least favourite piece of asphalt, the 8% Red Hills Parkway climb. Mile 16 was an all time record for me: a 15:42 split - 4 minutes slower than any other mile I ran that day.
People were coming past in droves, mostly on their first lap although there was no way of telling and Kona was a distant dream. I was on about Plan E - basic pure and simple survive and get the medal. Die rather than DNF. On the downhills I managed a shambling run, but all too soon the road was tilting up again. I had some words with myself and said pull it together - at least run between the aid stations no matter how slow. Looking at my watch I thought 11 hours was possible - that would allow me to regain a little dignity.
I got my ironman shuffle going and finally thank heaven I got over RHP for the final time. On the last descent I could smell home and with the prospect of sub 11 I began to pick up the pace. I actually started to resemble a runner and this final section was even mildly pleasant - my splits dropped from 10:30s to low 8s.
I allowed myself to enjoy the finish shute with high fives and smiles all round. Final time was 11:00:47 and I knew that the medal had been well earned. My main goal had not been achieved but I was happy to have finished and I knew there were many lessons I could take home. I would come back to the fight stronger and hopefully wiser!
When I got home I checked the results - Jack had stormed to a fantastic 5th AG place and well deserved Kona slot with 10:13, but then I was shocked to see I had come 17th. Maybe that's a testament to the brutality of the course or a reflection of the lack of depth in the field, probably if I'm honest a combination of the two. Still it made me feel a whole lot happier. The rolldown went to 11th with a time of 10:36 - with better pacing I reckon I would have been closer but ultimately I don't think I had quite enough on the day. But next year, who knows?
A couple of thoughts to mull over - there was a pretty significant DNS and DNF rate on this course: 2400 registered, 1634 finished. In actuality we were lucky - the weather conditions on race day were very favourable. If this course coincides with a hot day and 30mph+ winds, as are typical for this time of year, it'll be one heck of a day out there.