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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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..