Challenge Almere-Amsterdam 2016 - #RememberBen
by timPSep 20th 2016
This is us crossing the finish line of Challenge Almere-Amsterdam 2016 just 10 minutes within the cut off time of 15 hours with Village People's YMCA blaring in the background and the comperes building the crowd up to a frenzy to welcome home the last few finishers.
It was well over a year ago that we decided that this race would be a fitting tribute to you Ben and the emotions crossing the line were pretty intense but also was the sense of achievement.
But this is the end of the story, probably best to start at the beginning.
Pre-race planning session (Coffee & Cake)
This was our first overseas event since taking part in Challenge Copenhagan in 2011. That time we were part of a club outing with 55 athletes travelling from local Bristol club BADTri.
This time it was a much smaller intimate group of our good friends travelling to take part. Marc, Jon and Dave were all going to race the half distance with Debbie and Myself racing the full distance as a relay.
We had a great support crew as well with Sarah, Isla, Holly, Sebi and Debbie being part of the whole trip and Rich flying over especially so that he could cheer us on and soak up the atmosphere.
We had decided to make a long weekend out of the event so at silly o'clock on the Thursday morning most of us met up at Bristol airport for the early morning flight to Amsterdam. Jon, Holly and Sebi flew from Heathrow but we all arrived in Amsterdam within 20 minutes of each other.
A bit apprehensive handing over the bike to the care of EasyJet!
Waiting for the train from Schiphol to Bussum
We had decided to hire a minibus to get from the airport to our accommodation and then to the race venue. This worked out well but with 4 bikes and all the other luggage four of us still had to take the train, luckily public transport in and around Amsterdam is really efficient.
Because of the size of the group and the fact that we had entered at slightly different times, 6 of us (plus the two children) had rented a house via AirBnB whilst Dave, Debbie and Rich had chosen to stay at a hotel about a mile away. This was the first time we had tried AirBnB and it all worked out pretty well, there was plenty of space and a nice little enclosed garden.
Once we had settled in we unpacked and rebuilt the bikes. We had hired a Scicon bike box from The Triathlon Shop and although the design of the front forks and headset of the Felt B2 made it a bit fiddly to fit once in it was "snug as a bug in a rug". It was then decision time; do a quick bike test or go and get food! Proper athletes would go and test the bikes so of course we headed off to the hotel and had rather a nice meal and lots of beer!!
Jon's new Cube back together and ready to go
The following morning I woke up with a stonking hangover but that was soon sorted out with a nice 10k bike check ride with Marc and Jon. It was our first time cycling in the Netherlands and it was quite a revelation; everybody gives way to cycles but the cycleways are very busy! Luckily we managed to find a very quiet bit of road about 2km long where we were able to open up and have a blast at race speed. Everything seemed to be okay so we headed back to the house for a late breakfast.
Race briefing, registration and racking were all due to take place later that afternoon so our plan was to ride the 20km from Bussum to Almere whilst the others came over in the minibus. Due to the distance of the house to the race venue, Debbie and I had decided to book a room in the race hotel for the Friday and Saturday night. We had an earlier start as we were doing the full distance race and were fully expecting a later finish so being able to crash out on the door step would be a big help. We also thought that it would be nice to have a room that everyone could use during the day right at the race location especially for the children.
The ride over worked out very well, Marc had programmed a route into his Garmin although we were caught out a couple of times when we couldn't find the cycle path because they were so good they were better than a lot of roads in the UK and we couldn't believe they were for bikes!!
Racked and ready to go!
When we got to Almere there was a fantastic atmosphere already with a series of races in full swing and a comprehensive expo with lots of tempting goodies for sale. The race venue itself was in the centre of the town and the hotel we had booked was litteraly 20m from the finish.
Registration was very friendly and pretty slick. There were a variety of briefings for the various distances and they were delivered in both English and Dutch. Apart that is for the relay briefing where all the slides were in Dutch although the race director asked for a show of hands of those that couldn't understand Dutch and due to the number that quickly shot up delivered the briefing in English. Generally I'm a bit dissmissive about race briefings but this time it was time well spent as there were a number of significant changes from the athletes guide which would have embarassing on race day.
Briefing complete we packed up the bags put the stickers on the bike and helmet and wandered down to transition to rack the bike. The transition area was huge but very well laid out with plenty of room for the bikes. Like most big long distance races it was a clean transition area with nothing allowed to be kept with the bike, other than the helmet unless it was physically connected. All other items were bagged up and hung on racks in a changing area. This was under cover and again well laid out. Once we had dropped the bags off we made sure we located the relay handover spot and then walked the swim in, bike out, bike in routes. After the obligitory photograph we went to meet up with the rest of the guys to have a pre race meal.
After a bit of wandering around we found a steakhouse for supper and tucked in to a distinctly average steak! Food complete we said our goodnights and the guys headed back to Bussum in the minibus and we headed up to the room in the hotel.
Pre race meal
One of the advantages of staying at the race hotel was no need for a really early wake up call. Transition was open from 6 - 7am and the hotel had arranged to start serving breakfast at 5.30 for the athletes. So after a 5am alarm call we wandered down to the restaurant for breakfast with dozens of other nervous athletes. It was a really good spread but we were most interested in the coffee which was so strong it could have removed the enamel from your teeth.
Suitably fed and watered we went down to transition to check the bike and add nutrition and fill the water bottles. For the last few races I have relied on Nakd bars for my nutrition having never really taken to gels. Debbie had also made some energy balls based on a Kate Percy recipe and all of these went into my bento box on the top tube. Fluids were simply plain water with Nuun tablets.
A final walk through the bag area and a quick look at the finish line and we headed back to the hotel for another coffee and for me to change into my race kit.
Early morning bike checks
Dreaming of running over the finish line after six laps of the lake
The long distance race was due to start with the pro men at 7.20 so at about 7 we wandered down to the start area to watch them go. There was a reasonable field of male pros but to be honest I didn't recognise any of the names and they were mainly Dutch or german. Nevertheless it was still am impressive spectacle when the cannon fired and they set off. A much smaller female pro field went 2 minutes later.
The main age groupers race was due to start at 7.30 with the relay teams setting off 5 minutes later so it was time for a final hug and kiss before pulling the wetsuit on and heading into the start pen.
A bit of ACDC to get me in the mood for the swim
Quick hug before the start
The swim took place in Weerwater, a lovely lake at Almere Stad. The course was a counter clockwise loop of 1.9km tackled twice for the long distance and just the once for the half.
Down the entry ramp and into the water and it was absolutely lovely, about 22 degrees and quite clear. The start was in deep water about 150m out so that made for a very nice warm up, leaving just a minute or so to tread water before the start cannon went off.
Unfortunately there were only 13 long distance relay teams and when the cannon went off the specialist swimmers shot off like a rocket and I was pretty soon swimming on my own.
From the start line the first leg was pretty short, passed close to the shore and apart from the constant wake produced by a multitude of small boats was straightforward. Around the first pair of turn buoys and it was onto the longest leg, straight into a low sun. Luckily the tinted goggles made things a little easier but I found it difficult navigating without a bunch of other swimmers around me to help. About halfway down this leg I started to pass the stragglers from the main wave that had set off 5 minutes before.
Around the second turn and sighting become much easier as the sun was now on my right hand side. This leg passed pretty quickly but it was no surprise when having gone round the turn buoy I was overtaken by the leading relay swimmer coming close to finishing his second lap.
I knew that it was quite likely that I would complete my second lap in the company of swimmers in the half distance race who were due to set off in three waves 40 - 60 mins after I had. Sure enough as started my second lap I was engulfed by a mass of frantic arms and legs from one of the half distance waves, what I couldn't work out was which one and hence how long had my first lap taken.
It is always more exhilarating swimming in company and you can't help but get dragged around by the stream. It was also quite aggressive with lots of grabbing of arms and legs, not just banging into but grabbing and holding.
The second leg that had proved difficult on the first lap because of the sun was much easier this time round as I just had to stay in the mass of swimmers. I felt that I had a pretty strong second lap but when I pulled myself up the exit ramp and glanced at my watch I was totally shocked about how slow I had been, nevertheless the swim was now done.
Obviously pretty happy to be out of the swim!
It was a long run into transition but the bags were easy to locate and I was soon running out to my bike and started the equally long run to the mount line. At that point, as expected we were the last relay team to start the bike (although there were still a reasonable number of solo long distance bikes left) but this wasn't a concern as the bike is my favourite part and I was looking forward to getting stuck in.
Passing a crash before we had even got to the mount line!!
When we entered the race it was obvious that the bike course was going to be flat, very flat. The flipside to that was that it was also likely to be very windy and having looked at various photographs and videos of previous events and talked to a girl in the office who had raced in 2013 there were long stretches with no shelter whatsoever.
This left me a little undecided as I have been using a rear disc wheel for the last couple of years. For UK events I always take a spare rear wheel in case the conditions turn out to be really bad, or as in the case of Challenge Weymouth last year when there was a threat of a ban by the race referees due to the high winds. Travelling overseas that wasnât going to be quite so easy and my natural instinct was to play it safe and just take an 80mm deep rear wheel.
A bit closer to the day we travelled and after a discussion with Jon I was changing my mind. He was convinced that at my weight (chunky!) it would be fine and a check of the weather forecast showed that light winds were predicted so in the end I took the disc and crossed my fingers that it would stay calm.
At the race briefing we were advised that although there would be wind, it is Holland after all, it would be coming from the most favourable direction of South West. Apparently this would make the section along the dijke more pleasant.
The bike course for 2016, although still two laps for the full distance had been amended from previous years due to road works near Almere. Whilst this made no difference to me it meant that Debbie wouldn't see me again until I had completed the whole bike section as the lap point was now about 10km from transition.
Along the dijke
Once again I set off in the middle of competitors doing the half distance race so it would be important to not get carried away and go off at a pace that I couldn't sustain. The first 10km were along quite narrow cycle paths with some tight turns, this was quite nice as it naturally kept the speeds to a reasonable level and allowed me to settle into a nice rhythm.
Once out onto the main circuit there was the opportunity for everyone to spread out a little bit and get up to full race speed. This felt really nice and I was soon passing people on a regular basis whilst still keeping control of the effort. The first aid station in Almere Haven soon came up and this set the tone for the remainder, nicely laid out with the volunteers all wearing different coloured bibs reflecting what they had to offer.
A little past the first aid station and the course split, the half distance people carried straight on whilst those on the full distance had to complete a short 4km out and back section to help make up the full distance.
Once back on the main circuit it was a little demoralising to have to re-pass people that you had passed 10km earlier but never mind they were doing a different race! We then got onto a 25km dead straight section along the dijke, luckily the wind was coming from about the 4 o'clock position so maintaining a reasonable pace was quite easy. This section seemed to go on for ever and whilst it was nice hunting down and passing cyclists in front the second lap would be quite different with only the long distance racers on the course.
I knew that at the end of the dijke the course basically turned right and sure enough it was straight into quite a headwind. This was a completely different character, wide open fields with no shelter at all and the road stretching off into the distance almost as far as the eye could see. This went on for 20km and was hard work, holding back a little along the dijke was clearly exactly the right thing to do.
During this section it also became clear that the concept of no drafting that had been emphasised so greatly at the briefing had fallen on deaf ears. Great big packs of 20+ riders had been formed looking more like a Sunday club run than a triathlon. On the wide open roads this was just annoying but on the narrower bike path sections it was impossible to get past. Disappointingly there was no sign of a draft buster so they all got away with it!
The next 10km of the lap changed character with many more changes in direction, breaking the ride up and was a welcome relief before finally getting back to the water and a final 10km or so along a dijke to the end of the lap.
As I thought the second lap was pretty tough, the bikes had thinned out and so there were some quite long stretches when I was completely on my own. I was still feeling pretty good, making sure that I got up out of the tuck position on a regular basis to have a stretch. I must say that the last 6 months of yoga and regular maintenance trips to the osteopath have done wonders for my flexibility and make riding the TT bike much more pleasurable.
Through the second lap I had quite a few conversations with Ben, after all this was the main reason we had come to race in Almere. His photograph has been on my handlebars since the Cotswold 226 last year so although I didn't quite manage to get him to try a triathlon in person he has now completed 4 iron distance and 1 middle distance bike legs with me.
I had to dig deep for the last 20km and found it very hard to keep my concentration. I had promised Debbie that I would try really hard to handover to her after 7.5 hours. After my slower than normal swim it meant that I had to go faster than expected on the bike. In the event after getting back to transition racking the bike and running to the relay handover point the clock was on 7 hours 33 mins so I felt pretty chuffed that was mission accomplished.
After swapping the timing chip and a quick kiss Debbie was off and running.
The wind turbines give a clue as to the likely weather conditions
On reflection this was probably one of the more difficult bike courses that I have completed. The flat nature meant that it was a relentless constant effort, a little like a monster turbo session with no hills to raise the effort level and likewise no descents to gain a little relief. If I had thought about it a little bit more clearly before the event I would have incorporated some long turbo sessions into my training to make it more specific to the event. I think we also had a pretty good day for it, sunny with relatively light winds it would have been a totally different race on a cold, wet and windy day.
I know Debbie was pretty nervous about the run; the DNF at the Cotswold 226 was weighing heavily on her mind. She has also been suffering with a bad back and a trapped sciatic nerve meaning that her right leg goes numb when she runs. We were also hoping that the weather would be a little kinder than at the Cotswolds, unfortunately by 3pm it was getting pretty warm, in fact the region was in the middle of a mini heat wave with temperatures of 27/28 degrees.
So all in all it was a huge relief to see a massive smile on her face when I got to the changeover point and she was very eager to get the timing chip and get going.
The Run route
The run course consisted of six laps around the lake, a mixture of mostly tarmac but some hard packed trail thrown in for good measure. At the end of each lap you were tantalised by the red carpet, a cacophony of sound from the crowd, pumping music and comperes who had so much energy they were like Duracell bunnies on steroids before getting a quick glimpse of the finishing line before starting your next lap
Running with Dave
The exit from transition was about 200m from the finish line and as Debbie came out onto the circuit the first runner she bumped into was Dave who was about to start his final lap of three for his half distance race. They decided to run together for a while before Debbie, on fresher legs carried on at a slightly faster pace.
One of the last things I said to Debbie as she set out on the run was to âmake like sponge bob square pantsâ which at the time made perfect sense to me but from the quizzical look in response was obviously not clear to her. The obtuse reference was all about taking advantage of the numerous aid stations and using the sponges and water to keep herself cool from the outset. This was one of our key learnings from the Cotswold 226, once Debbie got herself overheated it was far too late and cooling down wasn't an option. Keeping cool from the outset was the key.
After I had dumped my bags in the hotel room I went and joined Debbie and Rich who were down by the finish line waiting for Dave to finish his race and obviously Debbie finish her first lap. Pretty soon I could see her approaching the red carpet and about this time the compere gave her a big shout out and then told the crowd why we were doing the race, this got a pretty big reaction from the crowd and brought a great big lump to my throat. Afterwards Debbie told me that she shed quite a few tears after she turned the corner out of the finish arena.
I was pleased to see that she was soaking wet; she might not have understood my suggestion about sponges but had the good sense to do it anyway!
I didn't get much of a chance to speak with her at the end of the first lap but when she came round to complete the second I jogged with her for a bit just to check how things were. It wasn't particularly good news as her back was giving her problems and the numbness was gradually creeping down her leg. On a very positive front she was in great spirits as she got stuck into the third lap.
By the end of the third lap the competitors had started to thin out on the run course and luckily it was starting to cool off a little. The crowd at the finish line however were getting themselves into a party mood and as each runner came through to either finish the race or start their next lap they got a fantastic reception. Again when Debbie came through I jogged with her for a little bit to check how things were going. Luckily her back had got no worse and although getting tired was still in a good place. I had been checking on the time and at this stage was now very confident that we would finish within the cut off time. I think this was a welcome boost and she set off with renewed vigour.
At the end of the fourth lap it was starting to get dark, we had our now customary chat and agreed that I would join her for the sixth and final lap so that we could cross the finish line together. From talking afterwards this was Debbie's most difficult lap; there were now very few runners on the course and a lot of the spectators had now gone home.
Looking strong at the end of the third lap
Debbie just about to start the final lap and going to join her
I waited at the barriers by the end of the lap whilst the rest of the guys were at the top of the ramp by the start of the final lap. Looking back I think I resembled an expectant father waiting for the birth anxiously pacing back and forward.
Eventually Debbie came into view got some high fives from the crowd and then we set off on the final lap.
It was really nice to get to see the run lap in person and Debbie was like a tour guide pointing out all of the key parts. The first feature was a couple who had been out cheering all day, the wife was German and the husband Indian and they were determined that they would wait until Debbie's last lap. They greeted us like long lost friends and hugged and kissed and wished us luck for the last bit of the race. Debbie had take the trouble to tell them your story Ben and I think they were very touched. This summed up the enthusiasm of the spectators in the area and the general friendliness that was evident throughout our trip.
Shortly afterwards we passed through an aid station and picked up an accompanying cyclist. He had been asked by the organisers to ride with us to make sure that we were okay. We later found out that the organisers did this for all the later finishers.
The next feature was a cheering station, still in place at 10pm with loud pumping music apparently still as enthusiastic as at the start. A little further on and there was another cheering station, this time run by a local triathlon club who have been in attendance for at least the last 10 years.
The next point was the furthest point of the course and was a path next to a very busy road. At the end of the path you had to cross a bridge and then it was on the way back to Almere. About this time our cyclist friend left us, after first giving us a head torch to cover the darker part of the course.
The sound of the finish line party started to become audible, encouraging us to make haste to the finish. There was one wooded section on gravel to complete and then it was back into civilisation and the finish area became visible.
The last 500m was fantastic, we knew we were going to finish with time to spare and it was time to get ourselves prepared for the emotions that would hit us as we crossed the finish line. Not surprisingly we both got a spring in our step and ran down the red carpet with Debbie able this time to turn left and take the final 20m to the finish line. As we turned the corner she grabbed my hand and we crossed the finish line hand in hand with the compere screaming "Team Pocock" at the top of his voice.
We shook hands with the organisers, got our medals and finishers T-Shirts and were ushered into the finishers area where everyone was at great pains to make sure we were okay. At this point all we wanted to do was have a drink and meet up with our friends and celebrate.
Just before turning down the finishing straight
The finish of the race was all a bit of a blur. It was fantastic to meet up with all our friends who stayed and cheered us to the very end. Unfortunately we didn't get much of a chance to talk as they needed to drive the 20km back to Bussum. We just headed into the hotel and flopped into bed, talked for a few minutes, turned the TV on to watch some rubbish and pretty soon turned everything off and went to sleep.
We were awake bright and early, got ourselves dressed and went down and had a massive breakfast. A little later Marc drove over to pick us up and we headed back to the house.
A sensible plan seemed to be travel into Amsterdam and be tourists for the day, so we headed to the station for the 30 min journey into central Amsterdam.
We had a nice chilled out day, eating good food, drinking plenty of beer and walking a lot further than I expected to be possible.
We had to say goodbye to Rich who was flying home on the Sunday evening and then we headed back to Bussum for a quiet evening drinking more beer and selecting dream bikes for our next investment.
Monday passed all too quickly with bikes being boxed up, luggage packed and the journey back to the UK.
Would we do the race again? Yes in an instant, the organisation was superb, location really good and the course capable of some good times.
Drinking a well earned beer in Amsterdam
The half distance race
It would be wrong not to mention Marc, Jon and Dave's efforts in the half distance race.
Marc had a pretty good all round race, his swim time was slightly slower than he expected but he had a storming bike leg. Although he said he found the run tough in the heat he still knocked out a cracking time and finished the overall race in a really impressive time.
Jon came into the race having had little opportunity to train but still had a good swim time and was going well on the bike until he started being ill. This led to him not being able to keep any fluids on board so his bike time was very impressive indeed all considered. The run was obviously going to be difficult but he achieved a key objective of being able to carry son Sebi over the finish line. He did have us worried for a while as he then had to go straight to the medical tent.
Dave had a really good solid race in his first ever middle distance triathlon. He had a good swim and then got his teeth into the challenging bike course. His run was very impressive when you consider he was running in the hottest part of the day. Will he do another one, only time will tell.
A huge thank you to the following people who have supported us every step of the way
Our wonderful companions for the trip; Marc, Sarah, Isla, Debbie, Dave, Rich, Jon, Holly and Sebi
Kim, Eva, Jonathan, Ben, Shaun and Jack for keeping mind, body and soul in perfect shape
Jon and Holly for stocking some wonderful kit in their shop
Last but not least, Ben for a really thoughtful care package
Well I think that's it Ben, a bit of a long report but it was an important event and I hope we did you proud and once again shared your story with a few more people.
Lots of Love
Auntie Debbie & Uncle Tim
My next race