So what happened after we returned from France at the end of June? Why have my updates been so few and far between?! The answer is quite simply “time”, or rather lack of it!
This period marked the peak intensity of my training for the Ironman in September, with regular training weeks totalling 20 hours or so. The minimal amount of rest I got was spent genuinely recovering and recuperating (stretching, being massaged, eating and sleeping!) or trying to catch up on the work I have been struggling to keep up with. Any “free time” left over was then spent with my wife, family or friends in an attempt to maintain a degree of normality! All in all, there haven’t been enough hours in the day and I struggle to remember exactly what I did when! Mentally, it’s been a bit of a “lost couple of months”!
One of the bigger developments over the last 8 weeks has been my employment of Andy Thornton (our “Garmin” guide from the Paris ride!) as my coach for the remaining time to the Ironman itself. From the start, his plan for me involved some assessments to see how I was progressing and to set some heart rate zones for me to work in. Heart rate zones were something I had in fact begun to explore myself properly in the period before I began working with Andy. I had researched how important it was to work in the correct aerobic zone to ensure I did not deplete glycogen stores too quickly and could continue to exercise for the long periods the event requires. I had started running whilst keeping my heart rate as stable as possible, although once we had gone through the assessments, it was clear I was still going too fast, especially whilst cycling!
So in among the hours of training, I fitted a “bike test”, which involved 30 minutes of warm up with 30 minutes of hard effort, whilst sweating buckets onto the kitchen floor, a run test of 2 hours at a steady pace and a swim test involving faster timed sets of 200m and 400m (thank goodness the Garmin records all the nitty gritty details!). These not only set my heart rate zones, but also resulted in a new “hypothetical” marathon time of 3 hour and 21 minutes…..maybe one day I can see if that’s genuinely now achievable!!! Off the back of these tests, Andy has been using coach Chouteau’s training plan as a guide and detailing some more in depth sessions with heart rate, cadence and pace targets, all documented in “Training Peaks” – an online professional coaching software tool.
He has also provided a different kind of swimming training session. Now, instead of swimming continuously for over an hour to complete Ironman distance (or more – my longest swim is 5,500m), I am required to complete “sets” at certain speeds, depending on the distance and goal of the session. This has reaped clear benefits for me as, where once I regarded swimming 200m in under 2 minutes as a huge achievement, I can now consistently and continuously swim full kilometres in under 20 minutes. This has enabled me to reduce my Ironman swim time expectations quite significantly. All of this planning and analysis is done from distance, with Andy situated in the North of England, and me in sunny (!) South Wales, and this is where the Garmin statistics and Training Peaks tool have really been of most use.
On the bike, the story has been the polar opposite however. Whereas I can now hope to swim and run faster, I am suddenly faced with the need to cycle much slower to keep my heart rate in the correct zone. This has been tough for me to achieve. Firstly, training on the bike has become more boring, partly because of the endless hours in the saddle in all weathers, and also in part because the reduction in speed makes you feel as if you’re not really getting anywhere! A lot of this boils down to the fact that the sensation is that I am not making any real effort to try and go anywhere quickly, and in all honesty, that’s pretty much the whole idea! Instead of killing myself to get up a hill at speed, we are now working on taking more time and trying to “cap” the heart rate to remain fresh for the rest of the ride and the marathon which follows. As frustrating as this is in training, I must mentally keep “my eyes on the prize” and focus on the long-term goal. Even at slow speeds however, I struggle to keep my heart rate down when climbing a long hill with a 15% gradient! Perhaps it’s just my physiology, perhaps my status as an amateur cyclist of just 8 months who still lacks the required muscle endurance. Maybe one day I’ll crack it!
In the midst of all of this lengthy training and analysis, I have managed to squeeze in three events (keep en eye out for the next blog with details of the third of these!), which became more training sessions themselves rather than competitions (so no “taper” period beforehand!). Not only have these added hours to my training schedule, but they have also helped me learn a bit more about how I will feel on Ironman day itself, and to practice multi-sport events. For example, at the Monmouth Aquathlon (July 26th) and the Ocean Lava Middle Distance Triathlon (1st August), I got to experience a mass swim start and to swim in the open water in race conditions.
In Monmouth and Fishguard (Ocean Lava), Bérengère was also competing and my parents came along to support and kindly perform kit-carrying duties! They were also our official photographers for both events! The Aquathlon started with a 500m upstream swim, before heading 1,500m back to the school boathouse for transition. It was a rainy day, but in a wetsuit the river Wye did not feel cold, however for the most part it was extremely shallow and the weeds annoyingly got caught everywhere, in goggles and under the Garmin! B had a few difficulties sighting (seeing which direction to swim in, which is quite awkward when you are used to following a line along the bottom of a swimming pool!) in her first open water event, but we arrived at transition at the same time.
We removed wetsuits and put on running clothing to complete a 12km trail run along the river bank, across a bridge and back along the other side. For me, the run went well and I managed to overtake quite a number of people who were clearly better swimmers than I! B is a less keen runner and so was a little slower, coming home in about two hours. I managed 1 hour and 41 minutes, which I was pretty pleased with, although I knew where I could save time if I entered again.
Just under a week later, and we were heading to Fishguard to meet up with Gary to take part in what would be my longest event to date, a middle distance triathlon, or half-Ironman distance. In the same event, a sprint triathlon (750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run) was taking place and B had entered this as her first ever triathlon! Once again Mam and Dad had travelled the distance to support us and we spent Friday evening eating our pre-race meal with them. The Saturday start time was reasonable (11am), although we were ready to go well before then! We checked into transition and tried to kill time before suiting up and heading to the bay where the race would begin.
There was a mass start for both races at the same time, and this gave me my best understanding of what it feels like with swimmers everywhere, arms and legs flailing in all directions! As it was, my swim went well, and on the second lap there were less people to contend with as the field spread out and the sprint triathletes headed off on the bike. Feeling good I entered transition after the longer second lap and prepared for the bike leg, which wasn’t so hot! My cadence sensor failed to connect and I was basically flying blind for over 3 hours, my heart rate monitor seemed to work only in fits and starts and was difficult to rely on, and there was a consistent strong wind right in our faces all the way to St Davids on both laps (about 45km in total!).
This was slowing me down, as well as being incredibly annoying on a very undulating course, and I was regularly passed over the whole 90km cycle leg! Who knows why, it could have been a bad day, it could have been the week’s training catching up with me (I’d cycled 280km in the days before the event). The only bright spot came when I passed B returning to Fishguard who seemed fine and having a good time. I was disappointed I couldn’t be there to cheer her home, but I had too much wind to contend with (and not the kind Rennie’s can help with either….).
Finally back in Fishguard, I changed for the run leg and I knew my target of 6 hours would be tough to achieve having taken so long (3hr31m) on the bike. I headed out for the half-marathon and saw B smiling proudly, very content with her first triathlon, and my parents cheering me on. The 4-lap course included a sharp hill at about 2km, perfect preparation for Tenby! Despite the setback on the bike, I was feeling good and stuck rigidly to the “negative or even split” race plan as defined by Andy, completing the second half of the race faster than the first. With the gradients and after the swim and bike, I was pleased with a run of 1 hour 47 minutes which so very nearly helped me beat my target! As it was I crossed the line in 6hr00m17s, and I still felt pretty good and in perfect shape to pose for some photos with my wife and our medals!
The four of us stayed at the finish line to support Gary who finished soon after, and, having collected bike and boxes from transition, we headed back to our hotel just a few hundred metres away to shower and change. That evening we ate with Mam and Dad along with Gary, his Mam, Auntie and cousins (one of whom had also competed) and celebrated Gary’s birthday! As he is at pains to point out, triathlons are not the result of a mid-life crisis….although I can’t decide whether I agree! Either way, as I said to B, far better to keep fit than buy a Ferrari……although I am looking at a new bike just now (expensive yes, but still cheaper than a car!).