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Amateur Age Group Triathlete

City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report

roborobby roborobJun 3rd 2014
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
Time to reflect back on my first venture into iron-distance triathlon (can't do much else, as I can hardly walk, and tackling stairs has become a mini-endurance event of its own!). First thing to say was that the event organisers did a fantastic job, as everything from the registration, transport logistics, route marking and facilities, to the professionalism, enthusiasm and support from the race directors, officials and marshals, was absolutely top notch, and I can't imagine M Dot or Challenge being able to offer anything more. The course was brutally tough, but varied and interesting because of that, and the scenery just stunning.
So to recap on the course: the distances were to be as close to iron-distance as possible, with the swim as a 2 lap course between the forth road and rail bridges (only 1km last year as it was only 8.9 degrees, but full distance this year as it was a much more bearable 11+), the bike on the roads from South Queensferry to Glencoe (slightly short at 177km, but with a lot of climbing, constant headwinds and some rough road surfaces), and the run taking in about 10km on undulating road before heading off road onto loose rocks and over a 470m hill before joining the West Highland Way to Fort William, with a 16km out and back to the summit of Ben Nevis before the finish (around 2.2km longer than a standard marathon).

The Race

Up at 3am after a restless night in the Dakota Hotel, and breakfast as per the nutrition strategy detailed later in this blog. The bike had already been racked in transition the night before, and the run kit was packed and in a van on it's way up to the second transition, so nothing to take other than swim kit. Getting to the venue 2 hours before race start gave me plenty of time to set up my transition, go through my usual warm up routine, and chat with other competitors. 15 mins to go, and we were given a last race briefing from the race director, and then headed down to the jetty to the swim start.

The swim was one of the aspects of this race that I had dreaded the most given the forecasted water temperature and tales of what lay beneath the surface, but my months of cold water training had done the trick, and the water was fresh and inviting. This was it. Time to put all the training to the test. As the director counted down and raised his fog horn, I felt calm, excited, and ready to race.
The Swim and T1: Good Start

Fog horn sounded and off we went. I had mistakenly started at the front, but despite swimming being my weakest discipline, I wasn't worried as I was used now to high-contact swimming from so many frantic sprint-distance starts. I focused on getting into a steady rhythm with as much bilateral breathing and catch-up style stroke as I could, as I waited for the masses to start piling past me as they usually do. Surprisingly this didn't happen, and I found myself in the unusual position of being near the front of the swim for most of the time. A guy came past and I latched onto his toes in the hope of a draft, but his poor sighting had him weaving around too much so I gave up on that and put in a surge to get past him. All my fear about this swim evaporated, and I was able to enjoy taking in the view of the imposing Forth Rail Bridge on the breath strokes.

At the end of the second lap, I hauled myself out onto the jetty and checked my watch. 59m53s, and bang on the target that my swim coaches had promised I could achieve if everything went to plan. I didn't have the dizziness that I was expecting after an hour in the cold water, so got straight into a jog for the long run into transition. Saw my support crew (Wife, Mum and her partner) who excitedly yelled out that I was in 12th. 12th! I couldn't believe this! With this news I raced through transition, ripped off my wetsuit and doused off the salt water with a water bottle, lubed up with chamois cream, threw on a cycle top and gilet, and ran the bike out of transition. I was keen to get out as quickly as possible, so didn't waste any more time with arm warmers and gloves, deciding that I could put them on once I was up to speed on the bike if I needed them. Out of transition after 4m33.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
Bike and T2: Disaster

So onto the bike and a few minutes navigating the narrow streets of South Queensferry before settling into a race pace over the Forth Road Bridge. I had my power meter showing how much effort I was putting through the pedals, and extensive testing and training had proved that an average output of 240W would be sustainable - perhaps more given the tapering. I had also learnt that I could safely increase this to 300W on the climbs, for reasons that someone with a better grasps of physics than me could probably explain! Holding this power felt great, and before I knew it I had overtaken a couple more competitors who looked like they were struggling (perhaps from the effects of the swim). Given my relatively quick transition, I estimated that I must be somewhere near the front.

So everything was going to plan, and I was looking forward to the 177km ride ahead of me, especially as the sun was shining and there was only a slight breeze. Then suddenly, without warning or reason, a pain started to develop in my lower back at the 30km point. I was used to having painful sensations come and go when racing in the time trial position, so calmly waited for this to go, but it just got worse and worse, and crept up into my neck. Trying to hold 240W was getting harder and harder, as was staying in the tuck position. Sitting up and stretching helped, but the pain came back the moment I got back into the tuck, and in the end I was forced to drop my power and stay sitting up.

I couldn't help but panic as I searched for a solution to this problem. Only 18km to the first food station - I hadn't planned on stopping at this one, but decided now I would use the chance to jump off the bike and see if I could crack the back back into place. My support crew were waiting at this stop and confirmed that I was in 2nd place, and 10mins behind the winner. I just hoped that somehow the pain would disappear so the power could come back.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
The next stint to the 96km checkpoint was interesting, as I was managing the pain by dropping my power right down to a measly 200W, but was getting reports from race support vehicles that I was still holding the 10min gap from the leader, with 3rd some way behind. This gave me hope that this new effort would be enough, which was soon crushed as I stopped at the checkpoint to dib my timing chip and refuel with black coffee from my support crew, only to watch the guy in 3rd race through. At this point it was clear that any hopes of racing this event had gone, and the only objective now was to just finish. I took the view on my watch off heart rate and wattage, and left it on time and distance, and spent the rest of the bike leg working out how long I would have to stay on the bike. This was without doubt the most pain I have ever felt on the bike, and any other day I would have probably thrown the towel in. The only thing that kept me going was that I was doing this for charity (Level Water - link at the bottom), and I had made a pact with myself that I would reimburse every single person who had donated if I quit! Pain was now erupting all over my back and legs, and the site of an old break on my right foot was becoming an issue. I looked forward to the ascents as they meant I could stand up on the bike, with the descent into Glencoe being the worst bit as the headwinds had picked up and I had to get even lower into the excruciating tuck to keep the pace going, as more competitors overtook me.

I entered T2 in 7th after a much longer than planned 5h56m split, relieved beyond words to be getting off the bike, but dreading the thought of having to tackle the epic marathon course. The loss of connection with my back had left my legs taking all the strain and totally trashed, and the backpack I was loading onto my back felt ten times heavier than it had the day before. My wife wished me luck, and I barely held it together as I limped out to start the run.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
Run: Survival

The first 10k of the run was on undulating roads, and the plan had been to hold a 4m30/k pace, after the envisaged formality of the bike. As the bike had been such a disaster, and my legs were so fatigued, I was struggling to hold 5m30/k and couldn't see how this could go any other way other than much worse. I saw my support crew a few times and got some words of encouragement from them, and a big bottle of flat coke that I had told my wife I wouldn't want but was happy to resort to now. At the 10k point, the course headed off road and up an impossibly steep climb over a 470m hill. I pulled back to marching pace, and was soon joined by a guy called Al, and duathlon competitor Nick (who would later go on to win the duathlon race). Both turned out to be really nice guys, and our chatting took my mind off the perceived hopelessness of the day. By the time we reached the top, I was re-energised and ready to tackle the rocky path of the West Highland Way.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
It was a surprisingly hot and sunny day, and I soon ran out of water, having to resort to sipping out of the many streams that traversed the course to tide me over until the 28k checkpoint. My legs were constantly screaming to me in pain, and my right foot was causing a lot of problems too now. On reaching the checkpoint, my crew were waiting with a load of supplies, but the organisers had everything I needed to reload my backpack for the last stint. I took 10 minutes here to take in some food and drink (including 2 cans of red bull now that I was firmly on the sugars), and change my socks that were soaked from crossing all the streams. One of the officials gave me the mandatory safety talk, and off I went with a fresh surge of energy, happy that the ordeal was nearly over.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
On the climb of the Ben, Al and I were joined by another guy who was also in good spirits, and given this was a leg-busting and low heart rate climb, the conversation was flowing. My quads were now screaming in pain, and it was clear that I had done some serious damage to them. As we reached the top, the path started to zig-zag up to the top that was covered in snow. Reaching the summit, you had to climb to the top of the cairn in the middle of the plateau, where you dibbed your chip for the penultimate time.
City to Summit 31st May 2014: Race Report
The descent was just brutal. No matter how slow you went, you still had to hop from one step to another and put a lot of loading through the legs, so I just put up with the continued damage to the legs and focused on not adding to the list of injuries with something like a sprained ankle or broken wrist. We had already seen the leaders fly down on our way up and wished them luck, and now it was my turn to exchange words of support with the competitors on their up to the top as we passed. I was taking it steady which lost me another 5 places, finally reaching the finish after a mammoth 7h35m run split, 15th overall and 14h45m since getting into the water in Edinburgh. Last dib of the chip, and into the tent for a beer and a burger.
I had never been so relieved to finish something in my whole life. I learnt a lot with this event, and will definitely be back to give this one another stab one day with the aim of racing it harder. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to targeting some more conventional iron-distance events, with the next one being Challenge Almere in September, where I'll hopefully be able to achieve a more respectable time at least!

Nutrition

The plan for nutrition was to try and stay ketogenic/fat burning for as much of the day as possible, and resort to sugars as a booster for the climb up Ben Nevis, as this is where I thought the day would start getting tough. So the meal the night before was a lot of fish and fats, and I started race morning at 3am with the ingredients of my usual bullet-proof coffee, just consumed separately given that I had no blender to mix them together (tablespoon of ghee, tablespoon of coconut oil, and then a black coffee). I had soaked a cup of chia seeds in water overnight so ate them half an hour earlier, around 2 hours before race start. I had prepared a concentrated bottle of UCAN Superstarch for the bike, and had filled the bento box with collagen tablets, with the plan being to take a serving of starch and 3 collagen tablets every hour. I had also dropped a couple of caffeinated gels in the bento box in case anything went wrong, and a couple of sachets of chamois cream. My support crew had strong black coffee and a few solid foods like bananas, ready for me at the three designated pit stops along the bike course.

Whilst I had adopted these nutrition strategies during practice, this would be the first real test to see if this less mainstream approach of fuelling would in fact work out. Pre race felt great, with a empty stomach but feeling sharp and full of energy. Swim was fine, and started on the collagen and Superstarch as soon as I got on the bike. If I hadn't had back issues then I'm confident I would have been able to stick to this the whole way, but the back led to a loss in strength and a pain that had me panic and start on the caffeinated gels and bananas with about 30km to go. After this, my nutrition strategy went to pieces. I had all sorts on the run - gels, starch, bananas, peanut butter cake and flat coke. Eating too much meant I had to deal with gut issues, especially on the flats and easy descents where I could pick up the pace. Ascending Ben Nevis was a case of just eating whatever of these foods I fancied, and the descent was done on just water as I concentrated on footing.
 
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